By Peter Murphy
ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Top world cocoa producer Ivory Coast on Monday rejected charges by rights groups that child slaves help produce its cocoa and said Valentine's Day consumers could eat Ivorian chocolate with a clear conscience.
The West African nation, racked by conflict and unrest since a brief 2002 civil war, has come under increasing scrutiny from human rights and consumer groups who are campaigning for boycotts of foodstuffs tainted by violence, abuse or dangerous chemicals.
The Washington-based International Labor Rights Fund last week pressed its case in a U.S. court against international food companies it says share responsibility in the trafficking, torture and forced labor of children who cultivate and harvest cocoa in Ivory Coast.
U.S. lawmakers have also called on Ivory Coast to prove child slaves are not used to help produce its average 1.3 million tonnes a year cocoa crop, which ends up in chocolates and chocolate-based products sold around the world.
Authorities in Ivory Coast and other West African states refute the allegations coming from the developed world, saying they present a distorted view of reality on a continent where whole families traditionally help out with farming.
"Child slaves don't exist here. A child on a farm isn't necessarily a slave," the president of Ivory Coast's Coffee and Cocoa Bourse (BCC), Lucien Tape Doh, told Reuters.
"(Western) children stay at home and play with their computers, but our children will be the farmers of tomorrow and they need to know how we do it. For us that is not a bad thing," he said, adding his own children accompanied him on his farm when they were growing up.
Nevertheless, a 2002 survey by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture said some 284,000 children were working in dangerous conditions on West African cocoa farms, mainly in Ivory Coast.
Many Ivorian farmers say they bring their children to work on the farm on days when there is no school. Some say they cannot afford school fees for all of their children or that there is no school close enough to their villages.
The growers say that by passing on cocoa cultivation skills early to their children they help to provide them with valuable work experience and knowledge, a useful asset in a nation where unemployment is soaring because of conflict and instability.
"I can assure America that the cocoa produced here doesn't have any problems. It's not produced by children. It's true that this problem does exist but we're fighting it," said Fulgence N'Guessan, director of the Kavokiva cocoa exporting cooperative.
Some Abidjan-based diplomats said they believed the problem of child slavery in Ivory Coast's cocoa plantations had been exaggerated and required an up-to-date study.
"It isn't as simple as some NGOs have made it out to be," one diplomat, who asked not to be named, said. He said issues of poverty and local work culture were also involved.
"With some of the stories I have read you would assume that there are thousands of children with chains on their ankles slaving in cocoa fields," he added.
"I think there are a lot of children working in the fields with machetes or pesticides. I think that is going on, but I don't necessarily believe that all of these children are slaves or trafficked," the diplomat said.
The BCC's Tape Doh said there was no reason for consumers to stop buying chocolate made with Ivorian cocoa.
"If he or she chooses our chocolate it will be a good choice, because it's good quality," he said.
(Additional reporting by Ange Aboa)