The boy with the machete is watching us. We’re sitting in an SUV in the middle of a rugged, red-dirt road about 10 miles outside the city of Abengourou, in eastern Ivory Coast.
Ibrahim is wearing ripped jeans, a worn, royal-blue Chelsea soccer shirt with the name of the team’s sponsor—Samsung—in large white letters across the front, and the same kind of clear plastic sandals that are everywhere in this part of West Africa. He holds his dusty blade casually against his left hip.
There’s a sign behind him that appears to have been erected by the Ivorian government as part of a campaign to educate farmers about children’s rights. Non it says in big, red letters. Then, again in French: “The worst forms of child labor.” Below that is a drawing of a young boy carrying a huge sack of cocoa beans with a big X over it. Underneath is another sentence: “The place for children is in school.”
Ibrahim tells us that he was born in Mali. He moved with his father to Ivory Coast when he was little—he’s not sure exactly how old he was—and he’s been working on cocoa farms ever since. What about school? No, he says, he’s never been to school. Is the work he does hard? “Yes,” he says deliberately. “It’s very hard.”
For the $100 billion chocolate candy industry, the story of Ibrahim represents a serious problem—one that it has been vowing to fix for 15 years without great success, and which has gained new urgency in recent months.
Child labour in West African cocoa farming first became a cause célèbre around the turn of the century when a number of pieces of investigative journalism focused the world’s attention on the plight of children who had been trafficked to Ivory Coast to farm cocoa, often from other former French colonies such as Mali and Burkina Faso, and held as slave labourers. In a documentary that aired on the BBC, filmmakers interviewed young boys in Ivory Coast who said they’d been beaten and forced to work long hours without pay. One who said he’d been working on a cocoa farm for five years was asked what he thought about people enjoying chocolate in other parts of the world. “They are enjoying something that I suffered to make,” the boy answered. “They are eating my flesh.”
The multinational chocolate makers are heavily dependent on West Africa. More than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region, and the vast majority of that supply comes from two countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce 60% of the global total. The two nations have a combined GDP of around $73 billion, according to the World Bank—or significantly less than Nestlé’s $100 billion in sales last year. Yet the global chocolate business would be thrown into chaos without them. Last year, Ivory Coast alone exported nearly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa, or two-fifths of the world’s production. And demand for chocolate is going up, as a growing number of consumers in countries like China and India have more disposable income. The price of cocoa surged 13% in 2015 even as prices for most raw materials were dropping. Meanwhile the average farmer in each country still lives well below the international poverty line.
Though the most sensational stories about child labour over the years have focused on boys and girls who’ve been held against their will and abused, the more common story is similar to that of Ibrahim. Hundreds of thousands of children are used as free labour by their own families and often asked to take on dangerous tasks like harvesting with machetes or hauling 100-pound bags of beans. For many, school is not an option.
There’s been a lot of activity on the corporate side in the last few years. Virtually every name-brand chocolate maker has created or expanded its own sustainability program aimed at tackling the child labor issue by improving the lot of farmers. And through the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry group, 10 of the largest chocolate companies created an ambitious program called CocoaAction in 2014. The plan, which has more than $500 million in funding, aims to reach 300,000 farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana with training programs to help them boost productivity—under the assumption that healthier economics for farmers will translate to better conditions for their children.
Unfortunately, progress has been slow—and by some measures the problem has actually gotten worse in recent years. Last July the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University released the findings of a comprehensive survey of child labour in Ivory Coast and Ghana in the 2013–14 growing season. Tulane found that 2.1 million children had been engaged in inappropriate forms of child labour in Ivory Coast and Ghana combined—a 21% increase over the 1.75 million identified in its survey five years earlier. Of those, 96% were found to be involved in “hazardous activity.” The number of children reported to be performing dangerous tasks fell by 6% in Ghana but jumped by 46% in Ivory Coast.
There was immediate blowback. A batch of headlines proclaimed that child slavery was on the rise. And in September three California consumers, represented by the same law firm, filed class-action lawsuits against Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé, claiming they wouldn’t have bought the products had they known the candy might be tainted by child labour.
Despite the swirl of negative press, the chocolate industry argues that real gains are being made, and that the long lag time in producing results is understandable given the nature of the challenge. “I think your main question is, ‘Why is this hard to fix?’ ” says Nick Weatherill, executive director of the International Cocoa Initiative, a Geneva-based nonprofit funded by major chocolate makers that focuses on addressing child labor in cocoa in West Africa. “It is clearly a complex problem that has its roots in poverty, and rural poverty no less. And if the problem is rooted in poverty, then the solution, in a way, is as complex as poverty eradication.”
Read the whole of this detailed and very thoroughly researched article by Brian O’Keefe by clicking on the link below.
Images: Benjamin Lowy