Chocolate is indisputably delicious. While most everyone enjoys the decadent food, fewer know that the most basic material from which chocolate is made is the cacao bean, and fewer yet know where from it comes. Todays largest producers of cacao are in West Africa, with the Côte d’Ivoire spearheading world production. The report on the Cacao Market Situation of 2014 forecasted a 1,750 million metric ton yield for the period from October 2013 until the end of June 2014. The forecast for world total cacao production for the period was 4,358 million metric tons; thus we can calculate that the Côte d’Ivoire produces approximately 35-40% of the world’s cacao. Naturally, a large number of labourers are needed to produce the Ivory Coast’s number one export; over 800,000 are child labourers.
The U.S. Department of Labor commissioned a study in 2011 on child labour in the cacao industries of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. In Tulane University’s report, two surveys, in 2007 and 2008/2009, revealed a projected total of 819,921 children in Côte d’Ivoire and 997,357 children in Ghana working on cacao-related labour; in just two countries and one industry, over 1.8 million children work. Only 5% of children in Côte d’Ivoire are paid in cacao-growing agricultural households, 10% in Ghana.
In 2001, the chocolate industry signed an agreement. The objective of this agreement, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, reads: “Cocoa beans and their derivative products should be grown and processed in a manner that complies with International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor. The protocol has 6 articles aiming to end child labour to promote awareness and recognition of child labour, including in West African countries; ending child labour in new labour practices and legislation; and creating “positive developmental alternatives,” especially education.
The Tulane University study showed that the chocolate industry was not doing enough to end exploitation of child labour. Between 2001 and 2009, the study indicated that the chocolate industry’s lacking efforts aided less than 4% of Côte d’Ivoire communities and about 33,000 children, though the chocolate industry claims to have done much more.
Following rumors of child labour on Ivory Coast cacao plantations, two men, Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano, flew to West Africa themselves to document, using hidden cameras, child labour. Their 2010 documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate, starts with Mistrati in Germany, asking chocolate vendors where their chocolate comes from. They then fly to Africa, to Mali, and document the illegal child trafficking to cacao plantations on the Ivory Coast, where the children are forced to work.
Many of the German vendors claimed to be ignorant of claims of child labour on cacao plantations. Furthermore, the CEO Ali Lakiss of Saf-Cacao, a major exporter of cacao to Europe and the United States, initially denied children’s involvement in cacao production; he finally concedes that children are engaged in forced labour after Mistrati confronts him with information on Operation Bia.
Operation BIA was a two-day operation (18-19 June 2009) by Interpol targeting select plantations suspect of illegally employing child labour and provides a grim insight to the reality of child labour in West Africa. The operation succeeded, concluding with the arrest of 8 human traffickers and the rescue of 54 children from seven different nations, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Togo, and Benin. The operation uncovered disturbing truths.
Lured by the prospect of wages, children are led and taken away, sometimes sent by their parents to work, other times kidnapped. The need for cheap labour led plantation owners to child trafficking; a plantation owner informed Mistrati that his brother could procure a Malian child for only 230 euros, for indefinite use. Most of these children are between 11 and 16 years old, working 12 hour days for no pay. The children work with machetes, heavy loads, and pesticides without protection.
The situation is miserably ironic; former slave-exporting countries now enslaving their own youth. The children sport scars on their legs from wielding machetes the pesticides slowly poison them. The separation of the child from the parent weighs heavily on the child’s psyche. Furthermore, children are denied the opportunity for education.
This unjust enslavement and trafficking of children arises from the farmers’ need for cheap labour, but this need is nothing new. Slavery was the European solution to labour shortages in their New World cacao plantations. On the backs of slaves, Europe could sate her chocolate (and sugar) addiction with cheaper prices while lining plantation owners and merchant companies’ pockets with wealth.
This present-day issue of child exploitation in the West African cacao industry is rife with historical significance. History repeats itself; chocolate corporations grow rich at the expense of peripheral countries and cacao producers. Unethical labour practices, in this case the forced labour of children, are practiced unprotested. We consumers seldom consider today who produces the commodities we purchase. Beyond the plight of children on cacao plantations in Africa, little do we think about poverty-stricken workers in Chinese factories, or other examples of modern exploitation. We must deepen our perception past the price or quality of our commodities to understand the ethics involved with all commodities, not just the issue of child labour and cacao. This is a step toward compassion and empathy, a step toward global harmony and peace.