STEVE INSKEEP, host:

If you're buying chocolate this Valentine's Day, you may want to stop for a moment to think about where it comes from. The world's top exporter of cocoa is Ivory Coast, the West African nation now locked in a deadly presidential power struggle, and cocoa exports are being used as a weapon.

Here's NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Most of Ivory Coast's cocoa is shipped from San Pedro, the country's second port on the palm tree-lined, southwest Atlantic shore. Dockers here, like Leonard Massa Yahi, are loading countless jute sacks packed with burnt-orange cocoa beans onto vessels heading out to sea.

Mr. LEONARD MASSA YAHI (Dock Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Yahi says he's pretty busy packing cocoa, timber and other goods onto waiting ships. But if Ivory Coast's would-be president, Alassane Ouattara, has his way, no more cocoa shipments will be leaving the port before the end of the month.

Ouattara has ordered a halt to the export of cocoa beans, on which the world depends for chocolate. The Election Commission, certified by the U.N., says Ouattara defeated incumbent Laurent Gbagbo in November's presidential runoff. But Gbagbo refuses to relinquish power, claiming he won the vote. So Ouattara has imposed an embargo on shipping out cocoa, the country's top revenue earner, in a bid to financially strangle his rival.

Mr. PASCAL JOSE DALLY (Technical Director, San Pedro Port Authority): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Export restrictions have had an impact on port activities - so says Pascal Jose Dally, the technical director of the state-run San Pedro Port Authority.

The main cocoa exporters and others in the chocolate industry -including U.S. giant Cargill, which has a huge warehouse in San Pedro -appear to be obeying the cocoa shipment ban. This briefly sent cocoa prices soaring on world markets.

Another leading American company, Archer Daniels Midland, declined to confirm whether it would comply with the ban, saying in a statement...

Unidentified Man: ADM is carefully assessing the situation in Ivory Coast and its impact on our business.

QUIST-ARCTON: Ivory Coast has been in political limbo since November's election. The vote was supposed to end almost a decade of turbulence which split the country in two after a rebellion in 2002. Instead, it has deepened divisions.

Gbagbo remains in the presidential palace, while Ouattara has been isolated in a lagoon-side hotel on the other side of Abidjan, guarded by U.N. peacekeepers and blockaded by loyalist Gbagbo troops. The sometimes-violent standoff has disrupted the economy.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

(Soundbite of rooster)

QUIST-ARCTON: It's market Friday here in Petit Pedro, an ethnically mixed farming village 15 miles outside San Pedro. Farmers have gathered across the road from the market, kicking back with rum and locally brewed, frothy palm wine, drunk from calabash gourds.

Speaking in Baoule, small-scale cocoa farmer Yoboue Brou explains how Ouattara's cocoa-export ban is affecting his family.

Mr. YOBOUE BROU (Cocoa Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Farmers have plenty of cocoa piling up on the plantations in the bush. In fact, it's a bumper cocoa crop this year in Ivory Coast. But Brou says unscrupulous middlemen are operating a thriving black market, trying to buy up their cocoa on the cheap, for half the price it was worth just a month ago. These traders smuggle the beans across the borders into Ghana, Guinea and Liberia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

QUIST-ARCTON: When I bring up the subject of Valentine's Day and chocolate, Brou's wife, Madeleine, smiles down at a heart-shaped, gold pendant around her neck - a gift from her husband, she says.

Ms. MADELEINE BROU: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Madame Brou says come Valentine's Day, chocolate lovers in the U.S. and around the world should please spare a thought for the cocoa farmers of Ivory Coast. She adds: Let them help us pray for peace and an end to our troubles.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, San Pedro, Ivory Coast.

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