Despite an international outcry in 2000 over child exploitation on West African cocoa farms, and ambitious efforts by governments since then to regulate the industry, very little has changed for an estimated 284,000 child labourers, according to campaign groups.
Between them, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire produce about three-quarters of the world’s cocoa, according to the US State Department, and they employ 200,000 children. Up to 12,000 of these have been illegally trafficked across African borders to work on Ivorian cocoa farms, according to non-governmental organisation (NGO) Stop the Traffik.
Many of these children are forced to work in dangerous conditions, on slave-labour wages or for nothing in order to put chocolate into the mouths of consumers, according to Phil Lane, Stop the Traffik’s European director.
“Now the industry needs to put its money where its mouth is, to get West African children off farms and back into school where they belong,” said Aidan McQuade, director of Anti-Slavery International, another NGO.
In 2001 presidents of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, the World Cococa Foundation, and nine individuals, including a representative from the Cote d'Ivoire government, came to a voluntary agreement with the US government known as the Harkin-Engel protocol (named after the two US senators who passed it), which aimed to decrease the number of children working on farms, improve working conditions, and certify that half of the cocoa produced in West Africa would be free of exploitative child labour by 2005.
But delays - due to conflict in the case of Côte d’Ivoire, and other burdens on resources elsewhere - meant the deadline was postponed to 2008, according to Muriel Guigue, spokesperson for the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), a partnership group of chocolate manufacturers, NGOs and trade unions set up to combat forced labour in the cocoa industry.
Guigue is convinced these governments now have the “political will and momentum” to progress and Côte d’Ivoire is finally on track to set up this certification system by July 2008.
But Eileen Maybin, spokesperson for the Fairtrade Foundation, told IRIN: “Cocoa certification is a `band-aid’ policy - it is attempting to address the problem of child labour without addressing the underlying cause, which is low cocoa prices.”
The Harkin-Engel initiative is funded by governments and cocoa manufacturers, but critics say it has not provided enough money to address the root causes of the problem: that poverty drives farmers to exploit children.
Partnership groups like the ICI work with communities to raise awareness of hazardous labour, and help them to identify illegal practices of child exploitation and trafficking. These organisations can solve part of the problem and there has been some success. In 16 projects in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, over 80 percent of the farms stopped forcing children to work with dangerous pesticides or carry heavy loads.
Likewise, in some projects supported by the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), a foundation supported by 60 companies in the cocoa industry, farmer incomes have been raised by up to 55 percent, and children are spending more time in school.
But according to Anti-Slavery International’s McQuade, “it would cost US$112 million over 10 years to reach all the affected children in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, a stark leap from current budgets of several million a year,” he told IRIN.
“If we’re serious about stopping it, we need to quadruple the investment.”
Chocolate prices too low?
More of this money needs to come from the private sector in cocoa-purchasing countries, Eileen Maybin at the Fairtrade Foundation told IRIN.
To keep farmers out of poverty, Fairtrade will add a US$150 premium to the price of cocoa, currently at $2,215 per tonne, to be used for social purposes.
“Unless chocolate manufacturers are willing to pay more for their cocoa, these poor conditions [on farms] will persist.”
Governments support this approach but at just 1 percent of market share, its impact is still small, said Maybin.
Ultimately building up all of these efforts might help to improve labour conditions on cocoa farms, McQuade told IRIN, but for now, these are mere pockets of success in a bitter-sweet industry.