I can’t believe I forgot to blog about this important story. Last February, Christian Parenti broke a great story about the exploitative nature of the chocolate industry.
The big cocoa exporters – Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500), Barry Callebaut and Saf-Cacao – do not own plantations and do not directly employ child workers. Instead, they buy beans from Ivorian middlemen called pisteurs and treton. These middlemen own warehouses and fleets of flatbed trucks that travel deep into the jungle to buy cocoa from the small independent farmers who grow most of the crop. But labor and human rights activists charge that Big Chocolate has an obligation to improve working conditions on the farms where so many children toil. They argue that the exporters and manufacturers bear ultimate responsibility for conditions on the farms because they exert considerable control over world cocoa markets, essentially setting what is called the farm gate price.
Tulane recently released its first report, and though the tone is polite, the picture isn’t pretty. Researchers found that while industry and governments in West Africa have made initial steps, such as establishing task forces on child labor, conditions on the ground remain bad: Children still work in cocoa production, regularly miss school, perform dangerous tasks and suffer injury and sickness. The report criticized the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana for lack of transparency. And it said the industry’s certification process "contains no standards."
In some respects the situation only got worse after Harkin-Engel. From 2002 to 2004, Ivory Coast was gripped by civil war. As militias and renegade soldiers killed and raped their way across the lush interior, income from cocoa exports helped fuel the fighting. Like diamonds and timber, cocoa became a so-called conflict resource. "Blood chocolate" was providing fast cash for armed groups and creating misery for common people. Since 2004, Ivory Coast has settled into an armed peace, with French and UN troops keeping the warring factions apart. But chocolate exporters and manufacturers say the war and its aftermath have hampered their efforts to eradicate child labor.
The industry’s two main trade groups, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and the National Confectioners Association, say tens of millions of dollars have been spent on building a socially responsible cocoa sector across West Africa. But the Tulane report criticizes the industry for not providing specifics to back up those assertions. And on the ground there is little evidence anyone is paying much attention. "What protocol?" asks Ali Lakiss, the director general of Saf-Cacao, the largest cocoa exporter in Ivory Coast, which controls about 20 percent of the trade. "The farmers don’t get the best price. If the cocoa price is good, then kids go to school. No money, and kids work at home."
Democracy Now had a dialogue about chocolate exploitation in Ivory Coast after the the Fortune article. Parenti adds:
You can’t hide behind the fact that they’re small family farmers. You completely control—the industry controls the market in Cote d’Ivoire. No one can sell without going through one of the large corporations that are members of the international chocolate organizations. And if you really wanted to improve conditions for farmers, there would be an agreement to raise prices by ten or twenty percent, and what that would mean would be that large firms like Cargill and ADM and those who buy from them, like Hershey and Nestle, would have to pay more money and would make less profits. It’s that simple.
And they don’t want to do that, because they’re in the business of making money. They’re not in the business of developing Cote d’Ivoire and keeping children out of poverty. That is fundamentally not what they’re about. And it’s very simple, what could happen. They could agree to regulations of their industry that would translate into price controls for farmers, and they don’t want to do that. And so, they will do everything except that, because what they are about is fundamentally making as much money as they possibly can off of the people of Cote d’Ivoire. And if that forces independent farmers to take their children out of school, as happened again and again, and exploit them and work them, so be it.
The fact of the matter is, 40 percent of world cocoa is produced in Cote d’Ivoire. The international cocoa firms control the ports, they control the market there. It would not be hard at all to have higher prices. In fact, until 1991—I mean, until 1999, there was a structure for ensuring minimum prices for farmers, and US firms lobbied hard to eliminate that. And due to a debt crisis, that was eliminated. And since then, prices have gone through the floor.
Now, whatever the price in London is is one thing. What matters to the farmers in Cote d’Ivoire is what the price is at San Pedro, or, more to the point, what the farm gate price is. And unless you guys make an effort to pay higher prices, that’s not going to happen. And we have to be realistic: they don’t want that to happen. And that’s why—
… there needs to be some accountability. You can’t just consistently say, oh, we partner with these NGOs, we partner with these NGOs. What NGOs? The only NGO that your one—the International Cocoa Initiative’s single employee in Ivory Coast would send me to was Mesad, an orphanage, where the head of the orphanage said only a handful of children from the cocoa sector had been there. This is hardly an education program for farmers. This is hardly some sort of social welfare program. I mean, there’s nothing that you can point to, but yet you continually just roll out these claims that you’re partnering with this group, you’re partnering with that group. And usually you don’t even mention the groups.
(Here are links to other Parenti articles).
In June, 2008, the World Cocoa Federation released its updated report about labor conditions in Ivory Coast. (The Press release is here . The actual PDF report on Ivory Coast chocolate production is here. Some conclusions:
- Cocoa production is the main economic activity in three-quarters (78%) of the villages surveyed
- 53% of villages have no electricity. Just 15% of households have electricity;
- there is limited access to potable water; only 40% of villages have access. 8% have no source of potable water;
- Access to education is limited: 9% of villages do not have a primary school, with the nearest school an average distance of 3 km away. No village has a secondary school, with the nearest located at least 10 km away.
- Most of the farmers surveyed own small plantations (94%), with the average size of plots varying from one to three hectares. Labour essentially comes from within the family, confirming trends seen in national agriculture surveys conducted in 1974 and 2001. The average number of children per household is six; however, 35% of households have between 6 and 10 children. In these family businesses, children usually play a role.
- 89% of children work in cocoa production. Fewer than 2% of children who work in cocoa production are not members of the household. This confirms the predominance of family labour in the production of cocoa in Cote d’Ivoire.
- many children are involved in dangerous work. 53% are involved in carrying heavy loads, 16% are involved in burning. Many children between 6-14 are involved in this kind of work.
- More than half of heads of households have no formal education (53%). Moreover, 21% have not completed primary school. Barely one-quarter (27%) of men and 7% of women have completed primary education. 63% of children attend school, while 27% had never been to school. 10% have dropped out of school. In a context of relatively low levels of school attendance, more than half of children in school (60%) cannot read while 22% read with difficulty.
Since February, I have pretty much abandoned purchasing anything from Ivory Coast until I see visible results from the Harkin-Engel protocol. The Ivory Coast report prepared by the trade group seems balanced and accurate (let’s thank intrepid reporters like Parenti for being skeptical). Here is a case where the industry is contributing to the problem, but now finds that any kind of certification process is difficult. In the meantime, stores like Whole Foods and even my local HEB offers chocolate from other countries (Guyana, Ghana, etc). I’ve been enjoying Endangered Species chocolate bars (which sell for $2.50 each).