Child labour feeds chocolate trade

The Toronto Star

Cocoa plantations still employ kids



OUME, Ivory Coast—The message has travelled down red earth roads to tropical forests where green, fist-size cocoa pods hang from lush trees: Stop child labour on cocoa plantations, or the world may stop buying your cocoa.

But four years after the chocolate industry, under pressure from U.S. lawmakers, agreed to create standards to stamp out the worst practices, many children still labour to help produce 70 per cent of the world's raw material for chocolate.

"When I go to my fields, I take my children with me," said Guy Maxime Heritier, an Ivorian farmer who spent 10 hours Thursday with his sons, 10 and 12, hacking weeds with machetes and planting. "They need to learn the trade. If I'm not here tomorrow, what are they going to do?"

Child labour has traditionally raised few eyebrows in Africa, where profound poverty and lack of schools mean children are often called upon to help support families. And while rare, forced labour and child-trafficking do exist in Ivory Coast, the world's Number 1 cocoa producer, said Nissoti Diaby of the German aid group, GTZ.

Reports that children were being trafficked and forced to work in dangerous conditions on African cocoa plantations prompted two Democratic congressmen to negotiate a 2001 agreement to end the practice.

The deal was endorsed by Ivory Coast and signed by industry giants, including the U.S.-based Chocolate Manufacturers Association, whose members represent more than 90 per cent of the chocolate processed in the United States.

The agreement was not legally binding, but it gave a deadline that expired Friday to "develop and implement credible, mutually acceptable, voluntary, industrywide standards" to certify cocoa beans are processed without any of the worst forms of child labour — putting children to work using large machetes, spraying poisonous pesticides and carrying heavy loads.

Critics argue the chocolate industry failed to meet that deadline because although standards have been established, they have not been widely implemented.

The industry says it met the deadline in Ivory Coast by setting up a pilot monitoring project in May in Oume district, where farmers and children are visited by government inspectors who first explain child labour laws, then return to ensure communities are adhering to them.

The differing opinions have arisen out of how to define the 2001 deal.

Bama Athreya, deputy director of the Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund, said the agreement to create standards on eradicating child labour meant developing a functioning certification system: labels affixed to chocolate products declaring they weren't produced with child labour.

Susan Smith of the U.S.-based Chocolate Manufacturers Association said proving that would be impossible.

Billions of cocoa beans are exported from more than half a million small farms in Ivory Coast alone, and there's no way to monitor every farm 24 hours a day.

Ivory Coast officials agree.

"You can't stand behind them all day while they're working,'' Bredou said.

About 70 per cent of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa, much of it originating in Ivory Coast.

Keen to protect an industry that brings in 20 per cent of national revenue, the Ivorian government set up the pilot project with the International Labour Organization in six villages in Oume with a total population of 35,000. A similar project is under way in neighbouring Ghana, the Number 2 producer.

Ivorian officials say convincing farmers hasn't been easy.

"It's hard for them to understand, because they've always worked with their children, and now we're saying don't do that,'' said project chief Georges Atta Bredou. "But when we say they'll stop buying your cocoa, your profits will be zero, the message starts to get across."

A preliminary project report that surveyed 500 children in Oume showed that 383 of them worked "temporarily or permanently" on cocoa plantations.

Most were working on farms with parents, but 7 per cent had "no family link with their employers and could be victims of child labour," the report said. Thirty per cent had never attended school. Some, like Heritier's sons, go to school several days a week and work the rest.

"It takes time to change mentalities. It's not quick or easy work to convince them," Bredou said. "The farmers tell us, `Sure, we'd rather send our kids to school, but we don't have the means.'"

The legal working age in Ivory Coast is 14. But in Oume, dishevelled children could be seen walking down roads returning from cocoa, rice and manioc fields, some carrying machetes half their size.

Some of the $2-million project fund was set aside to build schools and pay school fees, Bredou said. Farmers will have to hire adult manpower in place of their children. But officials say a major injection of aid will be needed to produce real change.

"The basis of this problem is poverty," said Amouan Assouan Acquah, who heads the national monitoring commission overseeing the Oume project. "It will cost money to expand this program, and who will pay for it?''