Labouring for chocolate
Saturday afternoon in the heart of the Ivorian cocoa belt and farmer Cheba Ouattara is at work on his cocoa farm, his four children beside him.
Mr Ouattara is one of about two million cocoa farmers who work across West Africa, producing the bean used to make one of the world’s most delectable sweets, chocolate.
Mr Ouattara’s children all attend school. The eldest, 18-year-old Issouf, hopes one day to be a scientist.
But many children on cocoa farms don’t get to school, some exchange their childhood for work, a roof over their head and a meal a day.
Others have been sent by their parents into virtual slavery, suffering beatings and abuse.
Eight years since reports of child labour and slavery in Ivory Coast – the world’s largest cocoa producer – first emerged, progress in eradicating child labour has been slow.
In the time that has passed, war, cultural differences and the importance of cocoa revenues to West African economies have all served to obscure the debate.
Ivory Coast, for long one of the Africa’s most prosperous countries, is the world’s biggest cocoa producer.
For decades, it has been a destination for migrant workers from the Sahelian countries to its north, countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali.
Scepticism initially greeted the 1999 news reports out of Abidjan that children were being trafficked from these countries into Ivory Coast to work on farms.
This scepticism was put to rest when a 2002 report by the industry body, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture, put the number of children working in dangerous conditions in cocoa in West Africa at 284,000 in 2002, 200,000 of them in Ivory Coast.
Many of these were working on their parents’ farms, but others were working far from their homes, without any relative in sight.
There can be no worse PR for a chocolate company than news that children in West Africa – the source for the bulk of the world’s cocoa – are picking beans used to make chocolate for children in the West.
Pushed by US legislators and campaigners, chocolate firms signed a voluntary industry initiative, called the Harkin-Engel protocol, in 2001. Its initial aim was to have a system in place to monitor labour conditions on cocoa farms by July 2005.
That deadline shifted.
Now chocolate firms are working towards a 2008 deadline to monitor labour conditions in 50% of farms in Ghana, the world’s number two producer, and neighbouring Ivory Coast.
Ghana is set to release its first cocoa certification report in 2007, which will account for more than 10% of the country’s total cocoa production.
This puts it on track to meet the 2008 deadline, a deadline which will be more difficult for war-torn Ivory Coast to achieve.
"These beans come from small farms in villages," says Mme Amouan Acquah, the government official responsible for child labour issues in Ivory Coast.
"We are in a state of war. We cannot make such guarantees."
Since the 2002-03 civil war split Ivory Coast in two, the country has remained prone to outbreaks of violence which can, at least for a day or two, push the world cocoa price higher.
With or without war, Ivory Coast’s cocoa has always made it to the world market, a fact that reflects the reality that it is in everyone’s interest for the cocoa to be sold.
Critics say that if the cocoa can get to market even in times of conflict, then it should also be possible to monitor labour conditions on the farm.
Even as this cocoa is shipped out of Ivory Coast, farmers still complain of low prices. Farmers in Ghana’s state-run system earn about $1 (50p) per kilo, or about 70% of the world market price. In Ivory Coast’s free market, prices can be as much as 20% lower than the Ghanaian price.
Campaigners say chocolate firms should pay farmers more so they can hire labourers and send their children to school.
Others say the responsibility lies with the Ivorian government to use its revenues from cocoa to provide schools and opportunities for their farmers so that they do not keep their children at home.
For some farmers, the best way to secure their child’s future is to take them to the cocoa farm.
There children can learn the trade that has sustained thousands of farmers for generations.
Underneath his mango tree, next to scattered mud dwellings, cocoa farmer Eugene Djedje, whose children are now grown up, says it is clear why a farmer would take his child to the farm with him.
"No one is obliged to send a child to school," he says. "If you don’t have money you don’t go.
"You can’t leave a child in the village. If you go to the farm and leave him behind, he will pick up bad habits. It is part of his education and also he can learn the technique of growing."
Likewise, the families in neighbouring countries who send their children to Ivory Coast often believe they are doing what is best for their children, even though the reality is a life often worse than the one they left behind.
Points out Mme Acquah: "The issue at the heart of this is poverty."
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