SOUBRE, Ivory CoastSOUBRE, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - The acrid smell of rubber is the smell of money, say the farmers of the Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, who are felling their aging cocoa trees to plant the hot new crop.
They are turning to men like Some Boniface. A wiry middle-aged rubber plantation worker, he stands on the roadside between San Pedro and Soubre in the western region that is the heart of the cocoa belt, selling rubber seedlings.
The cost of a three-month old rubber seedling is 350 CFA. Cocoa seedlings are free, but farmers are willing to pay for what they see as an investment in their future.
"Many people grow rubber and they prefer it to cocoa because rubber is much better for income compared to cocoa," said Boniface.
The rubber boom is a worry for chocolate makers who rely on West African producers that supply nearly three quarters of the world's cocoa.
"It's the biggest problem facing the industry. The income spread between rubber and cocoa is significant," said Paul de Petter, West Africa director at the world's top chocolate maker Barry Callebaut.
Rubber cultivation is gaining a local reputation for being easier for farmers to make a decent living.
"The fact that some producers are abandoning the cultivation of coffee and cocoa to other crops is a concern," said Eric Koffi, head of operations at Ivory Coast's coffee and cocoa body CGFCC.
A planned fixed price for the crop would hopefully help stem the switching, he added.
Ivory Coast is in the throes of a cocoa sector reform which will guarantee farmer prices starting in the 2012/13 season, in the hope of encouraging re-investment in the cocoa industry, securing future production.
Its rubber output has climbed to a record 234,000 tonnes in 2011, from 183,000 tonnes in 2007, according to the Singapore-based International Rubber Study Group (IRSG).
"The government's target is to produce up to 600,000 tonnes by the end of 2020, although plans may be delayed because of internal issues," said Lekshmi Nair, senior economist at the IRSG, referring to last year's civil war in the Ivory Coast.
"Planting would have to be done by next year to achieve that level of production."
In 2011 318,000 hectares of land area was dedicated to rubber, up from 304,000 hectares a year earlier, according to the Ivorian natural rubber association APROMAC.
In 2012 an additional 15,000 hectares are expected to be planted with rubber, the association said.
AGING COCOA TREES
N'Da Amoikon, who farms cocoa and rubber near Soubre while also selling rubber seedlings on the side, estimates he will sell around 300,000 seedlings this year, up from 120,000 in 2011, as the trend to grow rubber accelerates.
"Cocoa trees here start to decline in production after around 20 years and although some farmers are replanting... to be honest rubber plantations are becoming more important than cocoa," said Amoikan, who grows around 100 hectares of rubber and 5 hectares of cocoa.
Rubber is winning out over cocoa: a mature rubber tree gives a regular monthly income, while cocoa is harvested during the October-March main crop and the April-September mid crop, plus rubber prices are considered less volatile than cocoa.
While the cocoa reform may over time help address this, if the 2012/13 set price is deemed low by farmers, it could spur more switching to rubber.
"If the price is between 500-600 CFA they will observe the situation for a couple of years before cutting trees and switching to rubber, although some already do that now, destroying one part of their cocoa farm," said the head of a San-Pedro based co-operative.
Cocoa trees are also more prone to disease and quality issues which can significantly reduce farmers' income.
Indonesia, the world's third-largest cocoa producer is still struggling with diseases such as pod borer and the deadly VSD.
Malaysia used to produce around 250,000 tonnes of cocoa in the early 1990s. Production has dropped to around 50,000-60,000 tonnes after farmers shifted to palm and rubber.
"I think, personally, in future for the farmer it is best to grow rubber. The reasons are the rubber price is now stable and he knows exactly how much he produces and it isn't cut by disease or quality," said farmer Amoikon.
"If you invest in rubber it takes time - 5,6,7 years - but for the same surface area you get much more money from rubber than cocoa."