Agricultural Markets in West Africa: Frontiers, Agribusiness and Social Differentiation

{jathumbnail off}{jcomments off}Neoliberal policies have in recent years focused on introducing institutional reform to facilitate and regulate the operation of free markets. It is still assumed that the freemarket is the best mechanism to achieve efficient and equitable growth, alongsidetechnical prescriptions. A growing body of research on the political economy of agribusiness and the ways in which agribusiness and geopolitical interestscapture world commodity markets is largely ignored within mainstream agricultural development literature on Africa. After 20 years of neoliberal reform in Africa, the same old formulas are dogmatically asserted without critical reflection.

Bates (1981) dealt a telling indictment of the elite basis of state policies in Africa. But his analysis largely focused on abstract models ofmarkets and failed to examine the interventions of the state in agricultural production, which were often based on linkages with agribusiness and aspiring private sector capitalists. The interventions of the state in agriculture served not only to promote patronage but also the development of capitalist agriculture and agribusiness.

Bates failed to analyse the interests of agribusiness in expanding into developing country markets. This is an important factor, since the open market policies he advocated play into the interests of agribusiness. This article examines how agricultural markets have been shaped by power relations, often at the expense of the rural poor, and how the organisation of frontiers, transport and input supplies affect export crop, food and agribusiness production. The frontier and export crop In looking at state interventions that control producer prices to the detriment of farmers, one ofthe sectors that Bates focused on was cocoa production in Ghana.

Bates argues that the state sought to appropriate an increasing proportion of the producer price to use in expanding its political patronage. As a result farmers stopped producing cocoa and turned to food production. During the 1980s Côte d’Ivoire was regarded as the economic miracle of Africa, whose open door policies favoured growth. By the 1990s the Ivorian economy entered crisis as world cocoa prices collapsed, and there were structural similarities between this and the earlier crisis in Ghana.

The existence of excellent research on the interaction between production, market prices, and crisis in Côte d’Ivoire enables us to re-evaluate the earlier crisis in Ghana. Cocoa production throughout the world is patterned on cycles of boom, collapse and movement of cocoa to new frontier areas ofremaining forest land. Cocoa is subject to a ‘forest rent’ (Ruf 1997). New areas of production achieve windfalls from soil conditions, moisture, and lack of weeds and pests, which are reflected in low production costs. As cocoa plantations become old they become less productive, susceptible to pests, and weed populations build up. The cost of labour and inputs increase and profits decline. The cost of rehabilitating cocoa in old producing zones is high.

Cocoa producers respond by migrating to new areas of forest where production costs are lower.Labour migrates to these new areas since labouring is less arduous and gains better returns. The decline of production in old areas can result in higher world prices.New frontier areas come into production