Accessibility links

Breaking News

Valentine's Chocolate May Have Small Handprints of West African Children

While many people are offering their loved ones chocolate for Saint Valentine's Day Monday, Ivory Coast, the world's leading cocoa producer is struggling to reduce forced child labor in its cocoa sector. There are fears chocolate could become a "pariah" product, much like the region's blood diamonds.

One of those working away on what is locally known as a cocoa plantation, in Daloa, is 14-year-old Mamadou.

He nervously says his tutor forces him to work long, unpaid hours, but that he has no choice. He was given away by his parents because of their extreme poverty. The palms of his hands are rugged.

People around him refuse to speak, and Mamadou quickly resumes work.

Following a series of scandals, several years ago, involving reports of widespread forced child labor in West Africa's cocoa industry and the threat of a consumer boycott, the world's biggest cocoa and chocolate companies decided to improve labor practices

Most poor families who have cocoa plots use their children's help during the farming season, but the aim is to make their work less frequent and less difficult.

This is a farmers' field school in Offompo, where it is the parents who are students. Several thousand have enrolled in the program run by the American-based corporate World Cocoa Foundation.

"They map out a calendar of the year and then they talk about the various activities of the farm and when they take place during the year," said Bill Guyton, the foundation's president, explaining how the training helps reduce child labor. "Then they talk about various types of labor practices that are appropriate and not appropriate for children to participate in, including pesticides, spraying, including the safe use of machetes, also the importance of education, the length of work and the type of work that they do."

U.S. Senator Tom Harkin is not impressed. He says he bought flowers for his wife this Valentine's Day, not chocolate, because of what he calls lacking corporate responsibility in the industry.

Senator Harkin helped establish a protocol requiring that chocolate sold in the United States be certified as having been produced without the worst forms of child labor.

But an aide to Mr. Harkin said, last week, the industry will not be able to meet July 2005 deadlines for setting up a certification process and that a new law may be needed to enforce one.

In the cocoa-producing town, Agboville, trucks carrying cocoa beans pour out onto the highway leading to the main port, Abidjan. Ivory Coast exports more than 40 percent of the world's cocoa beans, so it also has a lot at stake in avoiding negative publicity.

With the help of the International Labor Organization, the government has set up a Cocoa Task Force to help eliminate forced child labor. But the head of the national cocoa marketing body, Lucien Tape Doh, says lots of money has gone to waste.

He says several Ivorian delegations have been to Washington to understand what exactly American lawmakers want. He says each trip is very costly for Ivorians, but he adds "you shouldn't count the number of flies on a wound." In other words, the end justifies the means.

There are also grassroots economic, political and ethnic dimensions to the issue. Ivory Coast has been torn by communal violence since the late 1990's, coinciding with a drop in cocoa prices for farmers and abrupt reforms to liberalize the sector.

In Ano, a local planter, Dedou N'Tapke De Gaulle, denies that Ivorians employ children, but he accuses foreign Burkinabe planters of being behind the practice.

Mr. De Gaulle says Burkinabes force their own children to work on their plantations, some as young as 10, because he says they have so many wives and children to feed.

With civil war now also dividing the north from the south, many indigenous farmers are calling for the Burkinabes to leave lush southern cocoa-producing areas, even though they were the ones who established most plantations over recent decades, when they immigrated from the mostly desert north.

Burkinabes have also been accused of being involved in the West African child's slave trade, which the United Nations says amounts to 200,000 children in the region.

One Burkinabe planter, Ouedraogo Moussa, denies all such accusations. He says he uses only adult labor, but he spends little time talking about the topic. He says it has become difficult for farmers to survive, because of insecurity and lower prices for cocoa beans.

One way farmers have tried to maximize their revenues is by cutting middlemen and bringing their own beans to this export factory in Abidjan.

Planter Gustave Ouegnin, an ethnic Aboure from the southwestern town, Bonoua, also denies he employs children.

He says ethnic Aboure would never force their own children to become their slaves. But he admits that, because schools are overcrowded and costly, fathers often take their sons with them to the fields.

Mr. Ouegnin says this is in their benefit, because, otherwise, they might turn to stealing.

Statistics on child labor have not been updated since the start of civil war in late 2002. Prior to that, there were estimates that over 100,000 children were involved in hazardous labor, such as clearing brush or applying pesticides.

Activists fear the numbers have gone up recently, despite international efforts, and that the chocolate people eat this Valentine's Day may in part have come from cocoa weeded, pruned and harvested by the small hands of children in Ivory Coast.