October 4, 2005

Ghana cocoa harvest customs cause AIDS worries

By Orla Ryan

KUMASI, Ghana (Reuters) - When Ghana's cocoa farmers find themselves flush with cash from the new harvest, many celebrate by taking new wives or spending their wealth on prostitutes.

It's a chance to show off rare riches or enjoy life for a while in one of the world's poorest countries.

But some health officials and industry workers in the West African country fear these harvest customs could lead to a rise in HIV/AIDS levels among experienced cultivators and skilled workers in the world's second-biggest cocoa producer.

"These farmers are in the habit of taking more women in the cocoa season. They think it is the time to enjoy themselves by engaging in sex with as many women as possible," Evelyn Appiah Kubi, resource development officer at cocoa buying cooperative Kuapa Kokoo, said.

"We can't do our business if our farmers are dying or become sick," she told Reuters.

The poorest farmers earn just a few hundred dollars a year but the richest can make a few thousand and may take new wives in a country where polygamy is still widespread.

Other farmers head to roadside bars and spend their money on prostitutes, some of whom make a nine-hour trip from the capital Accra to cocoa-growing areas, like those around Kumasi, to sell their services.

"Those (farmers) who don't care about their families ... go to the city (and) when the money is spent, they go back to the village," said farmer Daniel Boateng.

There are no official figures on how many cocoa farmers have been infected with HIV, but health workers say promiscuous behavior around harvest time, combined with a lack of information, create dangerous conditions.

"(The cocoa farmers) are more vulnerable because when the cocoa starts producing, they get money and they marry more women," said Elizabeth Safo-Adu, a HIV/AIDS training officer in Ghana's Health Service.


Ghana's HIV prevalence rate stands at 3.1 percent -- down from 3.6 percent in 2003 and well below the infection rate of some African countries worst affected by the disease.

But health workers say contact with cocoa farmers from neighboring countries, like Ivory Coast where prevalence rates are higher, adds to the risk of infection.

Ghana grows about 17 percent of the world's cocoa beans, taking second place to Ivory Coast. Cocoa is the country's second-largest earner of foreign exchange after gold.

The October to December period is the busiest part of the year for cocoa farmers as large quantities of beans from the main crop are harvested and sold on.

Truckers head to remote villages and take new girlfriends as they wait for farmers to load bulging sacks of aromatic beans.

"Some of the drivers and (their) mates come from Accra, Tema and other bigger places. It maybe takes a week to have the lorry (truck) loaded and in that week, they have been with local girls," said farmer Koto-Asamoah Serevour.

Health workers say many farmers forget about the risk of AIDS when they have money in their pockets.

"During the cocoa season people become more affluent. They then engage in extra-marital activities without believing they can get infected ... you can see that farmers are very vulnerable," said Michael Boamey, Ghana Health Service's HIV/AIDS coordinator for the Ashanti region.

Boamey said some farmers as old as 70 were being infected.

Health workers say there is little information about AIDS in remote regions of the former British colony, where televisions and radios are few and traditional beliefs still hold sway, persuading people that many illnesses are linked to the occult.

"In my village, people say it is a curse and often say it is witchcraft that brings the disease," said Fatima Fuseini, 21, a woman cocoa farmer who until recently thought that most people contracted AIDS from infected needles in hospitals.


The Ghana AIDS Commission, which has funded awareness programs through the agriculture ministry, said more than 90 percent of Ghanaians were aware of the risks of catching AIDS but that the issue was whether they would apply that knowledge.

"The challenge we face is changing behavior," spokesman Eric Pwadura said.

"There's a link between their lifestyle and risky behavior ... if one does not have a program for these farmers, it could potentially be a problem," he added.

Kuapa Kokoo runs a course, financed by the AIDS Commission, to teach farmers from different communities how to pass on information about AIDS and clear up misconceptions. The trainees then instruct other farmers back home.

"Cocoa is the second-biggest source of income for the nation. If the cocoa farmers are not being protected and if we don't give them information, then it will have an impact on the economy," Appiah Kubi said.