Accessibility links

Ivory Coast's Child Workers Suffer Despite US Legislation

  • Joe Bavier

In 2001, two American congressmen set up legislation pushing for a cocoa certification program designed to protect the thousands of children working in the sector. Four-years later, little has changed for the working children of Ivory Coast. Joe Bavier visited a plantation near Agboville in southeast Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa exporter and has this report for VOA.

At the end of a trail head leading through dense forest to a 30-hectare cocoa plantation, a half-dozen shirtless young men and adolescents take a break from work. During the July lull in the cocoa-growing season, they had been 'cleaning', hacking away at weeds and vines around the trees with razor sharp machetes.

Among them is 15-year-old Alassane.

French is hard, he says timidly, explaining why he prefers to speak, with an older brother as translator, in Koulango, the language of his native region near the border with Ghana. But it quickly becomes apparent he is not comfortable speaking in any language. His voice barely raises above a whisper.

Alassane quit school, he says, when he was 10 years old, two-years after he first began working. He says, it was not that he did not like it there. The decision was not his own. His father grew old and could not work, he says, so he had to.

Since then, Alassane has gone where the work is, sending half of everything he earns back home to his family.

A 2002 survey conducted by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture found that more than 280,000 children were working in dangerous conditions on cocoa plantations across West Africa. Most of those were in Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa exporter with more than a 40 percent international-market share.

A spokeswoman for the Abidjan bureau of the U.N. International Labor Organization, Nadine Assemien, explains why cocoa plantation work is on the group's list of the worst forms of child labor.

They spray pesticides, she says. They carry heavy loads. They do dangerous work with machetes, she says. And there is the possibility of being bitten by venomous snakes and insects.

All of this, Ms. Assemien says, constitutes a danger for these children.

A small corner of the plantation where Alassane works has been left unattended and overgrown. The local caretaker explains a boa constrictor lives in the dense undergrowth.

Four-years ago two American congressmen, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Elliot Engel, reacting to media coverage of abusive labor practices and child slavery on Ivory Coast's cocoa plantations, created the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

It created a certification program that would allow buyers in the United States, the world's biggest cocoa consuming country, to know whether the chocolate they bought in the supermarket was the product of child labor. The world's major cocoa producing countries agreed to the protocol.

Alassane was 11 years old then.

July 1 marked the deadline for the program to be in place. But for Alassane and other working kids on Ivory Coast's cocoa plantations, little has changed.

Sociologist and development consultant, Michel Seka says he does not understand it.

The Ivorian government has done nothing, he says. For something so vital to the national economy, he says, the government has shown nothing but indifference.

It was not until mid-June, nearly four-years after it signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, that Ivory Coast created a national plan of action on child labor.

On June 16, the government called on the German development agency GTZ to help it set up community education committees in the cocoa belt. In more than three months, the Ivorian authorities had succeeded in setting them up in a total of six villages. In nine days, GTZ set up 67.

A member of Ivory Coast's parliament, a plantation owner and vice president of the national cocoa marketing body, Daniel Abo Akpinde, denies complacency. He blames much of the bad press his country has received in recent years on cultural differences. He says it is not fair to judge African countries using American and European norms.

Over there, they say a child should not touch a machete, he says. In the West, they do not use that kind of equipment. Here they do, but we teach them in school gardens, he says.

Americans need to understand, he says. He does not think America wants to make Ivory Coast suffer more than it already does.

The West African nation has been divided for nearly three years by a civil war that is funded on both sides by cocoa revenues. It is another reason, Mr. Abo Akpinde says, Ivory Coast should not be penalized.

To make the point, an Ivorian cocoa industry delegation arrived in Washington, D.C. in mid June. A visit by Ivorian President Laurent Gbagbo soon followed.

Last week, given the lack of progress, it was decided to give a three-year extension for implementing the Harkin-Engel Protocol. A yet to be created supervising committee will more actively oversee the programs.

By late afternoon on the plantation where Alassane works, threateningly dark clouds have rolled in signaling a likely deluge, and there is still work to do. The plantation owner is carving a new field out of the dense forest, and brush must be cut away. Saplings must be planted and staked.

Getting up to head back up the path, Alassane picks up on an earlier conversation and asks after Ivory Coast's latest national hero, a soccer star currently with England's league champions. "And Didier Drogba?" he asks, then smiles, picks up his machete, and heads back to work.

In 2008, the year the new deadline extension is set to expire, Alassane will turn 18.