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US Lawmakers Discuss Child Labor, Cocoa Industry in Ivory Coast


U.S. Senators Tom Harkin and Bernie Sanders and Congressman Elliot Engel are in Abidjan, Ivory Coast's commercial capital, for a two-day visit related to child labor in cocoa production. They are set to meet with the government, industry representatives, aid organizations, and cocoa-producing families in Ivory Coast, before heading to Ghana. Naomi Schwarz has this from VOA's regional bureau in Dakar.

Some American lawmakers say the world needs to look closer at chocolate. They say child labor is giving the industry a bitter taste.

Iowa Senator Tom Harkin and New York Congressman Elliot Engel have proposed a plan to help consumers know when their sweet treats were produced without the worst forms of child labor.

Now Harkin and Engel, along with their colleague, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have come to West Africa, to see how things are going.

Sharon White is a press officer for the American embassy in Ivory Coast, the lawmakers' first stop.

"They want to see firsthand how Cote d'Ivoire is implementing its national strategy to monitor and end the worst forms of child labor in the cocoa sector," she said.

Ivory Coast, known also by its French name, Cote d'Ivoire, produces some 40 percent of the world's cocoa. Ghana, where the lawmakers head next, is also one of the world's largest cocoa producers.

Over the past decade, there has been increased attention to the cocoa industry, as reports emerged of children forced to work long hours doing hazardous jobs on cocoa plantations. There have been threats of consumer boycotts.

White says Harkin and Engel's protocol gives cocoa-producing countries a set of steps to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

"We believe that there has been progress, but this visit is in part to allow the congressional delegation to see firsthand what has been done and what needs to be done," she said.

But Acquah Amouan, of the Child Labor Tracing System, set up by the Ivorian government to monitor the cocoa industry, says child labor is not the problem the international community has made it out to be.

She says from a cultural perspective in Ivorian society, child labor is not a big problem, because it is more a question of apprenticeship than anything else. Amouan says the real problems are education, poverty, and development, which can lead to children having to work on family farms. She says Ivory Coast is working on fixing all of those [problems] as well.

But Mike Davis, an activist with natural resources-watchdog Global Witness, says child labor has historically been a problem in West African cocoa. And he says it is not the only problem.

"If you take Ivory Coast, there you have a trade which has not only been bound up with child labor problems but has also had a very close relationship with the conflict in Ivory Coast which has kept the country cut in half for the past five years," he said.

He says both sides in the conflict used revenues from cocoa to buy weapons and fund the war.

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