ABIDJAN - Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa, most of it from Ivory Coast. Child labor on cocoa plantations has been well documented and persists despite a 15-year-old agreement between the government and the world’s top chocolate sellers to stop it.
Cocoa plantations surround the small village of Bonikro, in southern Ivory Coast, and keeping children off those fields is the goal of an awareness campaign.
A speaker asks the crowd if their children should go with them in the field.
"No, because we use machete," replies a man. "Children can injure themselves; we should avoid it."
The event was organized by the International Cocoa Initiative that has been building schools and raising awareness about child labor in Ivory Coast since 2007.
ICI West Africa representative Euphrasie Aka says, "There are many drivers of child labor: lack of information, lack of awareness regarding dangerous work, poverty and a lack of infrastructure in rural areas.”
The ICI is financed by some of the world’s top chocolate companies, including Nestle, which is facing a U.S. class-action suit for allegedly not disclosing on labels its suppliers might rely on child labor.
Ivory Coast cocoa production was slowed for a decade by conflict, which diverted attention from ending child labor. Getting rid of child labor, however, can be profitable for farmers. It is one of the conditions to having their cocoa certified fair trade and sold at a higher price.
At the entrance to the Coopadef cooperative in the town of Gagnoa, a mural sets the tone. A red cross is painted over the picture of a child holding a machete in a cocoa field. "Children under 15 years old should be in school. No to child labor," reads the text.
The Coopadef cooperative has been certified by Fairtrade International for five years.
Its president, Christophe Koffi Kouakou, says the producers have built brick houses for themselves, roofs, and small solar energy panels, thanks to the premiums they receive.”
The cooperative keeps an eye out for child workers.
Cooperative worker Hervé Bolou visits members to check that no children are doing dangerous work.
Bolou says at first, people would tell us, "But when we were children, we worked in the fields." He says he replies, "We all did it, but you saw how it limited us, some got illnesses, some did not have time to study." He says now people understand.
It is not just local children, however. Sometimes, children are trafficked from neighboring countries. In June, INTERPOL rescued 48 children from Ivory Coast cocoa plantations.
The operation was backed by the Ivory Coast first lady's office, which has been coordinating the effort against child labor and child trafficking. It has launched poverty-reduction initiatives to reduce the use of child labor, such as providing microcredits for women to diversify their incomes between cocoa harvests.
Yet, an estimated 1.1 million children worked on cocoa plantations during the 2013-2014 harvest season. The government says it aims to reduce that number by 70 percent in the next four years.