Once a cocoa planter, Ferdinand Konan Yao has joined the ranks of fellow farmers who have abandoned Ivory Coast's top cash crop to work in clandestine gold mines buried deep in the plantations. "It hasn't rained for more than five years and cocoa's no longer worth anything," said Yao, sporting a cowboy hat. Ivory Coast is the world's leading cocoa exporter but it is the prospect of striking gold that is luring diggers from neighbouring Mali, Burkina Faso and Guinea. They come to seek their fortunes in dozens of small unlicensed mines scattered over a radius of more than 300 kilometres (185 miles) in the central Nzi-Comoe region. The work has also attracted thousands of cocoa planters, whose forebears had accomplished Ivory Coast's first "economic miracle" in the 1970s by hoisting the nation to top of the cocoa export list, ahead of other producers in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
Each morning, small groups of "peasant-miners" head across the wooded savannah carrying pickaxes, shovels and hoes to search for gold. At work sites, broad trenches have been dug in the middle of plantations and uprooted trees lie in craters. The task of looking for gold is mobilising all able-bodied people from the former "cocoa belt". At Boore, a village of 2,000 inhabitants in the central Dimbokro region, cocoa planter turned gold panner Octave Kouamee Konan openly regrets the destruction of an orchard. "We were forced to do it," says the father of five children, seated on a felled tree trunk. "We had to choose between dying of hunger or feeding the family.