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The bitter truth about chocolate

In Ivory Coast, 800,000 children work in the cocoa industry despite efforts to eradicate child labour. Why does the problem persist?

By Tamasin Ford

“I’m home,” I shout as I pull the front door shut. My sister comes running and eyes the bag in my hand: the spoils from my day’s work. It had become our weekly ritual.

Saturday-night TV with the most delicious chocolate — broken chocolate, but chocolate nonetheless. I was 12 years old, too young to work legally, but I desperately wanted a pair of Dr. Martens boots. I trawled the shops in town asking if anyone needed help. “You’re not old enough,” I was told. In the United Kingdom it was, and is, illegal to hire anyone under the age of 13. I kept searching and finally hit gold at a small Belgian chocolate shop, owned by a portly man with a strange moustache and an ill-fitting suit. I was hired, as long as I accepted cash in hand and didn’t need a contract. I did some quick calculations: £1.20 an hour for 10 hours every Saturday — I would have my boots within a month. “Great,” I said. “See you next weekend.”

Nearly 25 years later, as I’m researching child labour in the cocoa industry for this article, I’m aware of the irony. Although let’s be clear: working a day a week gift-wrapping pralines and truffles wasn’t exactly hardship.

But in Ivory Coast in West Africa, where I now live, child labour is a much harsher reality. Some work after school to boost the family’s income; others work instead of going to school, deprived of the right to an education. In the country’s cocoa industry, documented cases include children trafficked into labour, forced into labour or simply working more hours than the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulates.

In West Africa, 1.8 million children are involved in growing cocoa, claims a recent U.S. government-backed report by Tulane University. In Ivory Coast, 800,000 children work in the cocoa sector, maintains a CNN investigation conducted earlier this year. These figures make for gripping headlines and heart-wrenching tales of children working all hours of the day in stifling tropical climates. But is this really the case? Are children, in such huge numbers, behind the creation of the simple chocolate bar?

This is where my journey begins.

From Abidjan, the economic hub of Ivory Coast, I travel 245 kilometres north to Yamoussoukro along a smooth, newly built highway. Yamoussoukro leaves first-time visitors awestruck. Once a small village, it was the birthplace of the country’s first president after independence from France in 1960, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who transformed it into the country’s capital. Six-lane superhighways criss-cross the city. Glamorous, almost pharaonic-style hotels and government buildings drip with opulence. The presidential palace features an artificial lake and crocodiles. The airport runway is long enough to land a Concorde. But it’s the Basilica of Our Lady of Peace, standing 158 metres tall, the biggest church in the world, that is the most striking. The huge dome, complete with Italian marble and 7,000 square metres of stained glass windows imported from France, glistens on the horizon as you enter the city, completing Houphouët-Boigny’s expensive vanity project. To this day, the city lies largely dormant. It may have “capital” as its title, but no government ministry has relocated here.

Houphouët-Boigny became known as “the Wise Old Man” of Ivory Coast for turning the country into a cocoa powerhouse, producing nearly half the world’s supply. By the 1970s, the country was dubbed the “Ivorian miracle,” achieving some of the highest growth rates on the continent. And it was cocoa that got it there.

From Yamoussoukro, I travel west through several small towns. The roads get narrower and bumpier, worn down by decades of trucks laden with cocoa, coffee and rubber trundling back and forth. The skeletons of thick, tall trees, the remains of the tropical rainforest, can still be seen poking through the tops of the plantations — too strong to be felled and too tough to wither during the slash-and-burn practices used to clear the land. I’m on my way to Diouya-Dokin, a small cocoa-producing village. I have already been warned that the issue of child labour is not an easy one to bring up. “They are scared about the words ‘child labour,’” says Euphrasie Aka, the national co-ordinator of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), an organization set up in 2002 by chocolate companies, civil society and non-governmental groups to stamp out child labour. Most communities deny the fact children work on their farms because, she says, “they have a different definition of a child.” Some view the onset of puberty, or when a child stops “being naked in public,” as the start of adulthood. Others class children only as those who are “still breastfeeding,” she says.

When I reach Diouya-Dokin, the atmosphere is tense. A meeting has been called over a land dispute. The entire village is sitting under a drooping mango tree, taking advantage of the welcome shade cast by its dense, finger-like leaves. The Burkinabe community sits on one side, the native Guere on the other. I’m told the last time they both met, it almost turned violent.

'Conflict over the cocoa-producing lands of western Ivory Coast has been ongoing for decades.'
Conflict over the cocoa-producing lands of western Ivory Coast has been ongoing for decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, Houphouët-Boigny encouraged people from neighbouring countries to come work the land. They came in droves — happy to leave their own arid lands of Mali and Burkina Faso to work in the lush, tropical climate of Ivory Coast. Many Ivorians moved to the big cities, relieved to sell or rent their lands to people who wanted to farm them, and eager to be part of the new urban economy. But in the 1980s and ’90s, as the price of cocoa plummeted, the “foreigners,” as they were soon called, weren’t as welcome anymore.

In 1993, after 33 years in power, Houphouët-Boigny died and the country was thrust into the unknown. Disillusionment and unemployment ran high. In 1998, land law reform meant only people of Ivorian nationality could own rural land, posing problems for the hundreds of thousands of “foreigners” who had worked and owned the cocoa fields for generations. The informal land purchases made by their forebears — often affirmed through handshakes or poorly written documents — suddenly, in legal terms, meant nothing. Land seizures were common, fuelling tension between the once-harmonious communities. The anti-foreigner rhetoric ramped up until the country erupted in civil war in 2002. For the best part of the next decade, Ivory Coast was split in two: the rebels controlled the north, while the government controlled the south. Human rights abuses and atrocities were committed by both sides, often sparked by conflict over land. Cocoa quickly became a weapon of war, with reports of industry profits financing the armed conflict. When the presidential elections took place in 2010, after years of postponement, the country’s second civil war broke out, claiming the lives of more than 3,000 people.  

Diouya-Dokin is an example of what remains today: a community torn in two, confused about who owns the land, both sides willing to fight for the survival of their families.

We take a long walk to the parcel of land at the heart of this conflict, through carefully planted cocoa trees laden with beans. I see the most important ingredient of chocolate in its natural form for the first time: the cocoa pod. Bulging yellow and orange fruit grows from stalks clustered under the branches of small trees. Inside these pods, white sweet-tasting flesh encases each precious bean — the livelihood of every family on the plantation. We reach a clearing and everyone stops. “This is my farm,” declares Antoinine Billray, 66, who says his land was sold illegally to the Burkinabe community when he fled to Liberia during the violence after the 2010 elections. The Burkinabes claim Billray’s people sold it to them.

The father of four is now desperate. “It’s been very miserable since we came back,” he says. “All this farmland you see here is mine.” My eyes follow the direction of where his arms are pointing, and I see a group of children with machetes walking past us. I want to talk to them. Find out why they are not in school. I want to ask them what they are doing on the cocoa plantation, what they use the machetes for. As I move toward them, they usher each other away. “I admit it, it pains me a lot,” says Billray, speaking not of the child labourers but of his loss, unaware that my mind has wandered. We walk back to the village for the final meeting of the day. The communities decide the only solution is to compromise — to share the land. It’s not ideal, but nobody wants more violence.

I leave Diouya-Dokin still no clearer on the issue of child labour than before my trip. But a glimpse into the lives of the cocoa farmers leaves me feeling I have a lot more to learn.

Back in Abidjan, representatives from some of the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturers and officials from Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two biggest cocoa-producing countries, attend an ICI event to discuss child labour. I talk to Jeff Morgan, the director of global programs at Mars, Incorporated, one of the eight chocolate manufacturers who signed the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol (or “cocoa protocol”), which promised to introduce measures to end the “worst forms of child labor” in cocoa-producing countries by 2005. But work was slow. The deadline was extended twice. The final commitment now reads, “By 2020, the worst forms of child labor . . . will be reduced by 70 percent” in the cocoa-producing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana.

“When we signed the protocol, we didn’t have the kind of insights that we have going on 13 years later,” explains Morgan. “I think it will be impossible to ever guarantee in a sector this size that some child labour or some child working in a hazardous environment couldn’t be taking place.” He adds that while they can train farmers and build schools, “the idea we can certify the daily practices of that number of families I just don’t believe is possible.”

It is a bleak outlook on the lives of these farmers who get, on average, just three percent of the money we hand over at the checkout for our chocolate bar. The average Brit eats about four kilograms of cocoa a year, according to the International Cocoa Organization, slightly less than the Belgians and Swiss who lead the world at around six kilograms — and nearly double the average Canadian, who eats closer to 2.5 kilograms each year. Ivorians, despite living in the world’s top cocoa-producing country, eat less than 500 grams a year.

I begin arranging my next trip: Abengourou, in eastern Ivory Coast, known for producing the best cocoa beans in the country. When I arrive, I am greeted by Adou Leon. The 33-year-old farmer tells me he always knew he wanted to work the land, like his father, but first wanted to go to university. He returned home 10 years ago to help farm his father’s 98 hectares. “He is old so he cannot go to the farm anymore,” he tells me. “It would be better for me to return to the land to regenerate his plantation. But I haven’t done that,” he says. He sees the look of confusion on my face and smiles. “Follow me. I’ll show you,” he says.

As we walk, he tells me how cocoa farming has run in his family for generations. His father has three wives and 22 children, leaving a little over four hectares of land for each child. We arrive at Leon’s portion. He proudly looks up at the tall swaying trees. A slice of bark has been etched out of each one, allowing a thick white milk to ooze freely from the trunk. He leans down to pick up the black cup, carefully attached to the tree to catch the sap, and raises it to his nose. “The smell of money,” he says, laughing as he inhales the pungent liquid. These are not cocoa trees on Leon’s plantation; they are rubber trees. Seven years ago, he diversified his crops: he would continue to grow cocoa on half his land; on the rest, he planted rubber.

“I am a son of a farmer. I know the difficulties my parents faced with cocoa,” he says. He begins to explain how, in his view, the government has too strong a hold over the cocoa industry.

The price of cocoa in Ivory Coast under Houphouët-Boigny was determined by the government, but the system was riddled with corruption. In 1999, the sector was finally liberalized, but this did little to stem money being siphoned off into the pockets of power. Multinational companies held sway, and farmers were often bullied into selling their crops at rock-bottom prices. In 2012, the new government under President Alassane Ouattara introduced a raft of cocoa reforms to try to keep farmers in the industry. These included a return to a fixed price for cocoa beans, as well as training and support to rejuvenate old plantations. However, many farmers, diminished and worn down by poverty, had already switched to rubber.

Leon tells me there is less political interference with rubber, and more importantly, it is much less labour intensive, needing far fewer workers per hectare. Cocoa produces just two harvests a year, each one needing a long and complicated fermentation process once all the pulp and the beans have been scooped out of each pod. If anything goes wrong, an entire harvest is lost. Rubber trees provide a monthly income enabling farmers to budget for the future — setting aside money for their children’s education, for new tools or machinery, and even possibly for some savings.

“All the young people are turning to rubber,” says Leon, who also serves as president of a 250-member farming co-operative, more than three-quarters of whom have started planting rubber. “Through the years, you will see that cocoa can disappear.”

Back in Abengourou, Leon takes me to the warehouse where farmers sort through fermented cocoa beans spread out on a huge tarpaulin, stopping only to throw a rotten or broken one aside. “I started farming when I was 22 years old, still young,” says another farmer, Armaud Kakou, age 40. “By now I should have money, but I can’t even meet my own needs. I have three children, you understand?” he asks, accusingly. “I, too, have been forced to replace my cocoa with rubber,” he says, explaining how he felled two of his four hectares of cocoa in 2009. “We want cocoa to be respected at the top . . . exporters, our parents and politicians. They all have to know that we work with our bare hands on the cocoa farm, and it requires so much effort that they should not mock us with these low prices.” He didn’t want to give up his cocoa trees, he says, but he wanted to start living. “The people wearing the ties don’t care. They fix the price as they want,” he says. “The farmer has no say. It is miserable.”

His words, “It is miserable,” ring in my ears.

'I see a group of children with machetes. I want to find out why they are not in school.'
I am aware that, once again, my visit has failed to answer my questions on child labour, but I am beginning to grasp why children may be used on the cocoa plantations. “Poverty is fundamental,” says Euphrasie Aka from the ICI. “They don’t have schools, running water, electricity. So they don’t have many choices.” I think back to the farms and plantations I have visited so far; not once did I see a school nearby. The national Ministry of Education admitted there is a shortage of 35,000 school places for the 2013-14 school year; most of these are in rural areas where people live in campements or communities beside their cocoa fields, far from the towns and villages with access to schools and health services. Many simply don’t have a choice.

However, there are sustainable and fair trade certification schemes that ensure farmers adhere to better practices, such as not employing children. The payoff for farmers is that certified cocoa beans receive a premium on the farm gate price. But do they actually work? I make my way to a small cocoa town, 40 kilometres from Abengourou, where Barry Callebaut, the world’s biggest chocolate manufacturer, sources its beans. Not far from here, the company has set up a Cocoa Center of Excellence, where they train farmers to increase their yields and produce bigger, tastier beans. Everyone wins: the farmers get more money, and the chocolate manufacturer gets more cocoa. The farmers also introduced Fairtrade certification three years ago, giving them more than the standard $1.50 for every kilogram of beans. On average, across all of the certification schemes in Ivory Coast and Ghana, farmers get an extra $0.25 per kilogram in profit. “It increases the wage of every farmer and gives us a better standard of living,” says Lucien Aka Yao, the president of a 1,600-member farming co-operative. “It also helps us learn the new modern ways of farming.”

Studies have shown that certification programs do help to improve farmers’ working conditions and enable more children to go to school. However, the International Cocoa Organization says there is a “lack of data on the effectiveness of the schemes in eliminating child labour.” It points to examples of children being found on certified farms, making me think back to Jeff Morgan’s comment about child labour being impossible to eradicate. I ask Yao, again, if certification is enough. “The farmers are suffering in the bush, you know,” he says, almost angrily. The problem is that global demand for fair trade chocolate is not high enough, increasing by only two to three percent a year while the number of certification programs are increasing exponentially. So despite the time and money farmers spend getting certified, they sometimes end up selling their certified beans for the normal fixed price, without the premium. “We are poor, and we are getting poorer,” Yao says. “Everyone needs to know that.”

I begin organizing my final trip, to Broukro, a community of 1,200 people deep inside rolling fields of cocoa trees, 60 kilometres from the bustling port city of San Pedro, the largest cocoa-exporting port in the world. ICI has been working with Broukro’s villagers to stamp out child labour since 2008, and when we arrive, the entire community is waiting for us. Euphrasie Aka introduces me, telling the villagers I am not a threat. “Answer any questions she has, and answer them from the heart,” she says.

They are eager to show me the school, which they built and funded themselves, along with seed money from ICI, three years ago. Inside one of the three mud-brick classrooms, principal Kouassi Konan is teaching a science lesson. “The difference between ice, vapour and running water are —” he says to the class in French but never finishes his sentence. Spotting me hovering in the open doorway, the children stand in unison and chime, “Bonjour, Madame.” Nine-year-old Bacely Nousa, one of the eldest pupils, tells me he has been going to school for two years. “Before I started going to school, I worked on the farm. I followed my father, giving him water. I worked on the cocoa nursery. I worked every day,” he says. “It’s better now because school is good, because I want to become a civil servant because you can earn lots of money,” he adds, as a small chuckle erupts from the other children. It is the same story for every child in the room. Before this school was built, the next closest school was four kilometres away. “I worked on the farm, clearing the fields with a hoe,” says eight-year-old Nayaria Brou nervously, explaining she has been in school for three years now. That means this girl would have been five when she followed her parents to the farm each day. “I don’t want to be a farmer,” she says defiantly. “I want to be a doctor.”

Konan says none of the children could read or write when they first came to the school. “But now look,” he says, asking them to pick up their chalk and small blackboards to write their names. “It’s sad to see children using machetes because they are so small,” he tells me. “It’s the custom, though, the culture, to accompany your parents to the farm.” ICI says about 98 percent of children who work on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana are working on their own family farms; it is the minority who are trafficked, usually from neighbouring countries.

Back in the campement, I talk to Firmin Kouakou N’Guessan, the president of the community’s youth group. It set up a team of young men who offer their manual services so families don’t have to use their children. “It’s true that the children used to work in the farms,” he says in his native Guere language, explaining he doesn’t speak French because he never went to school. “We never even knew about the concept of child labour,” he continues, adding that following your parents to the farm was supposed to prepare you for later in life.

I see a woman sitting behind N’Guessan, listening intently, keen to speak to me too. “The school’s not finished yet. It’s still small and doesn’t have all the classrooms,” she says. Blondine Affuay Yao, 38, is the secretary of the community’s women’s group. She, along with the group’s president, rallied the women together to grow maize, pepper and coffee and used the profits to help buy the materials to build the school. I ask her what happens to the children when they finish school at the age of 12. She looks me hard in the eyes and says, “We will send them to college.” The nearest college is 22 kilometres away. Isn’t that too far? “We are obliged to try,” she says, repeating more firmly that all of them will go. I admire her determination. Her drive. But she and I both know many families here just don’t have the money to send their children away to high school.

“In my opinion, the biggest challenge is the fight against poverty,” says Aka from ICI, who regularly visits communities like these. “They don’t have money, so they don’t have many choices.” ICI, funded mainly by the chocolate industry, has managed to reach hundreds of cocoa-growing communities in Ivory Coast and Ghana. It helps them build schools, provides training and sets up projects to combat child labour. But the organization’s work has touched just a fraction of the families working in the industry. There are close to 700,000 cocoa-producing smallholders in Ivory Coast and a further 600,000 in neighbouring Ghana — many of the farms are far from the road, deep inside the country, with little access to schools, clinics and running water.

The question remains, could the chocolate industry do more? In 2010, it promised $7 million in new funding over the next five years; that’s less than a thousandth of the $83 billion the industry was worth that same year. Is that really enough?

The survival of Ivory Coast’s economy and its people are dependent on the world’s insatiable desire for the sweet, luxurious taste of chocolate. But as I make my way back to Abidjan, I think a better way of phrasing that idea is this: the world’s unquenchable need for chocolate depends entirely on cocoa-producing countries and the farmers who toil day and night. Chocolate consumption is rapidly increasing around the world. Countries like Brazil, Russia, India and China, with their growing disposable incomes, are a major driving force behind this growth. In the last 10 years, Brazil’s consumption alone has almost doubled, while China’s, still far behind Europe’s, has more than quadrupled. The global chocolate industry is only going to get bigger — estimated to be worth a record $117 billion this year.

I think back to the communities I have visited across Ivory Coast: the farmers in the west sharing up their land to avoid further violence; the farmers in the east switching to rubber because of low cocoa prices; and the community of Broukro, joining together to build its own school by hand. The families have few choices. Poverty rules, along with culture and tradition. If there is no school, the parents take their children to the farms. If there is no money, everyone must pitch in to build the family’s income. How can girls and boys like Nayaria and Bacely ever have a chance of going to school beyond the age of 12 if there isn’t a school to go to?

The cocoa sector is possibly one of the most complex industries I’ve ever delved into; entangled with politics and corruption, wrought with poverty and, of course, dogged by allegations of child labour. But the chocolate industry and the government lawmakers are the ones with the power, not the farmers. They are the ones deciding how much these farmers are worth. They all know the conditions these families live in, how few choices they have. So the question is: why don’t they do more?

I think back to when I was 12 years old, working at the Belgian chocolate shop in my town. I remember the day when, after almost a year of never missing a Saturday of work, I asked my boss for a pay raise. That was my last day of boxing up pralines into pretty little packages. At the end of my shift, he told me to leave. He said he didn’t feel comfortable with me working there anymore, knowing that I wanted more money. I didn’t know what to say. I was a child. But unlike the thousands of children working in Ivory Coast, I was able to remain a child. I still went home to dinner on the table and got up to go to school on Monday. The following week, I found a job washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant.

Tamasin Ford is a journalist in Ivory Coast.


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