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By Ange Aboa

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Ivory Coast s government has introduced stricter regulation of its world-leading cocoa sector for the 2014/15 season as it reasserts its control following a decade of liberalisation, according to a document from the country s marketing board.

The government abandoned a system of spot buying in the 2012/13 season, selling forward its anticipated crop in order to fix a guaranteed minimum price for farmers and encourage investment in ageing plantations.

The reforms, which also included stricter quality standards, have largely won the government praise for raising farmer incomes and improving the reputation of Ivorian cocoa. Some exporters were quick to criticise the new regulations, however, claiming they were overly restrictive and risked cutting into their profit margins.

Under the new measures contained in a memorandum sent to exporters and merchants by the Coffee and Cocoa Council last week, exporters are limited to 110,000 tonnes of bean purchases during the October-to-March main crop harvest.

Of that, 70,000 tonnes will be permitted for the period from October to December and 40,000 tonnes from January to March. No restriction was placed on the volumes exporters may purchase during the April-to-September mid-crop, which generally produces smaller beans typically used for semi-refined cocoa products.

Under Ivory Coast s system of forward sales, exporters bid at auction on the right to export specific volumes of beans during a fixed time frame.

According to the new regulations, they are now only allowed to purchase 10 percent more beans that they have the right to export, therefore clamping down on the secondary market for bean sales between exporters.

Exporters will also no longer be allowed to pay above the government-fixed price scale, which set a price of 938 CFA francs (.81) per kilogramme for beans arriving at the ports of Abidjan and San Pedro during the main crop.

I think they are trying to protect the little guys and encourage more local processing, said one Abidjan-based exporter. It will help them, but the big exporters won t be happy.

Last season, exporters were permitted to pay merchants up to 15 CFA francs above the price scale upon delivery in order to guarantee supplies.

Violating the price will now lead to a fine of 50 CFA francs/kg on the volumes purchased. Exporters will, however, be allowed to pay year-end bonuses of 10 CFA francs/kg to merchants supplying 500 to 3,000 tonnes and 15 CFA francs/kg over 3,000 tonnes.

The financial sanctions are disproportionate. We no longer have any freedom in how we work. The CCC is guiding us in everything. It s not normal, said the director of a European exporter based in Abidjan.

The CCC also placed new restrictions on merchants and farmer cooperatives, who will now only be allowed to hold bean stocks for 30 days, the memorandum stated.

Any operator having difficulty offloading their stocks within this period must expressly contact the Coffee and Cocoa Council in order to find a solution, the document read.

In order to track these stocks the CCC will for the first time require merchants and cooperatives to declare their weekly purchases.

The CCC has taken radical measures and we think its just a way of controlling the sector from start to finish without allowing us any kind of margin, a third exporter told Reuters.

(1 US dollar = 519.3200 CFA franc)

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