By Ange Aboa
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - International cocoa exporters in Ivory Coast are restricting staff movements due to the worsening Ebola outbreak on the top grower's western borders, risking leaving traders and exporters without accurate output forecasts for the upcoming season.
Ivory Coast produced nearly 1.45 million tonnes of cocoa last season, according to International Cocoa Organization estimates, almost 37 percent of world supply. Crop forecasts by experts who visit farms to count pods are closely watched by the market ahead of the main harvest that starts in October.
Traders said there are also concerns there could be an exodus of farmers if the disease spreads to the growing regions in the west of the country.
The epidemic in West Africa - the worst since the disease was first discovered in 1976 - has killed at least 1,427 people since it was first identified in March in Guinea, Ivory Coast's northwestern neighbor.
It has since crossed into Sierra Leone and Liberia, which is separated from some of Ivory Coast's most productive growing regions by the Cavally River. Nigeria has also recorded a handful of deaths due to the illness.
The Ivorian government closed its land borders with Guinea and Liberia on Friday.
"Our senior management took the decision to not authorize travel to Ivory Coast due to the Ebola risk," said the head of the pod counting unit for a European trading company with operations in Ivory Coast.
Pod counting, where statisticians travel through growing areas and monitor crop development, is the principle tool used by exporters to estimate the size of an upcoming harvest.
Ivory Coast's main crop harvest opens in October, and all seven of the exporters contacted by Reuters said they had called off their pod counting trips planned for August and September.
Already this month, concerns over the disease's spread led Barry Callebaut, the world's biggest chocolate maker, to cancel an annual meeting of managers that was due to take place in Ivory Coast.
Officials from companies told Reuters that some Ivory Coast-based exporters have already implemented travel restrictions on employees working in the country, while others are also contemplating such measures.
"I received an email from our management in the U.S. banning travel to the west beyond Daloa due to Ebola," said an employee of an Abidjan-based exporter, referring to the town that serves as Ivory Coast's western cocoa hub.
PANIC IN THE WEST
While there have been no confirmed cases of Ebola in Ivory Coast, fear of the deadly virus - transmitted through contact with body fluids - has already gripped the country's western cocoa belt.
"Everybody is watching Ivory Coast and what's happening there, because that would be a big problem if people abandon their farms," a London-based trader said.
"I don't think anybody has a contingency plan. The contingency plan was buying terminal cocoa but there's not a lot around, in Europe there's maybe 60,000 tonnes available," he said.
The cocoa market is already tight, with futures up by nearly a fifth this year as speculators bet on a global deficit in 2014/15. ICE December cocoa hit a more than three-year high of $3,300 per ton on Wednesday.
"If even one zone is affected, it would be a catastrophe for cocoa," said an exporter based in San Pedro, Ivory Coast's second port city. "If it's the west, we risk losing at least 300,000 tonnes of cocoa this season."
Sierra Leone and Liberia have both introduced quarantine zones, sealing off some areas affected by the disease in an effort to stop it spreading. Farmers and merchants in Ivory Coast told Reuters they would flee rather than become trapped by a quarantine.
"We know that even if one single case is declared here, the government is capable of placing all of us under quarantine," Moussa Kante, a merchant based in the town of Duekoue, told Reuters. "We're all ready to leave if we hear of a case."
(Additional reporting by Sarah McFarlane in London; Writing by Joe Bavier; Editing by Michael Urquhart)