Children of Chocolate

Under pressure from U.S. lawmakers, Ivory Coast launches cocoa monitoring project

July 1, 2005


OUME, Ivory Coast (AP) _ The message has traveled down red earth roads to tropical forests where green, fist-size cocoa pods hang from lush trees: Stop child labor 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 labor to help produce 70 percent 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 labor 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 labor and child-trafficking do exist in Ivory Coast, the world's No. 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 _ Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York _ 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 percent 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 labor _ 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 labor 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 labor meant developing a functioning certification system: labels affixed to chocolate products declaring they weren't produced with child labor.

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. Ivorian officials agree.

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

The United States is the biggest importer of Ivorian chocolate, buying about 70 percent of the crop. Harkin and Engel have urged U.S. consumers not to buy chocolate on Valentine's Day, but for now, any cocoa boycotts are just threats.

Keen to protect an industry that brings in 20 percent of national revenue, the Ivorian government set up the pilot project with the International Labor Organization in six villages in Oume with a total population of 35,000. A similar project is under way in neighboring Ghana, the No. 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 percent had "no family link with their employers and could be victims of child labor," the report said. Thirty percent 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, disheveled 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?"

Though the chocolate industry has established standards outlining the worst forms of child labor that should be eradicated, child rights advocates say they have not, for the most part, been applied.

Athreya said her organization sent investigators who documented child-trafficking in Ivory Coast. She had no figures to indicate how widespread the practice is.

"They bought themselves four years of time," she said of the chocolate industry. "And they hope the problem will go away if they do enough fast talking."

Copyright 2005 By The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.