With Halloween right around the corner, Americans are about to indulge in their favorite candies, such as M&Ms, Snickers, and Kit-Kats. In fact, we individually enjoy almost 11 pounds of chocolate a year! Americans demand $4.3 billion in cocoa imports—that’s 1,222,300 metric tons of cocoa! However, did you know that the companies that make your favorite treats may be guilty of supporting child labor and human trafficking in West Africa? The Ivory Coast, where 43% of the world’s cocoa is produced, is estimated to have over 100,000 child slaves working on cocoa plantations. So why is nothing being done to stop this? Well, the cocoa industry makes $1 trillion in yearly revenues and has significant power in the U.S. economy. In 2001, two American lawmakers created legislation to get large chocolate companies to label their products “child-labor free,” launching a subsequent campaign that brought them to the Ivory Coast. This month, we’ve reached the 10th anniversary of that act and little progress has been made.
A brief history of cocoa in the Ivory Coast
French colonizers in the late 19th century encouraged cocoa as a money-making cash crop, and even after gaining independence, migrant farmers continued to grow this precious commodity imported by European high-society. In the 1970s, cocoa production outstripped another cash crop, coffee. By the 2000s, cocoa was so profitable that over $38.5 million in revenue was used by opposition forces to fuel conflicts. In 2010, political power-players hijacked cocoa production, resulting in an international boycott. Today, over 50% of the Ivory Coast’s agricultural production and 35% of its exports are based on cocoa.
The cocoa supply chaingoes like this: farmers sell their crops at cheap prices to middlemen, who trade to big chocolate companies that make all the profits. The average yearly income of a cocoa farmer in the Ivory Coast = $30-$108. About 40% of cocoa farmers are not native to the Ivory Coast, and must face local prejudice and poor living conditions. For the children forced to work on plantations, their lives are much worse. They lack healthcare, sanitation, education, and face poor nutrition, chemical exposure, exhaustion (80-100 hr. work weeks), separation from their families, machete-related injuries, and whippings as a form of punishment. Sometimes, families from neighboring Mali are so impoverished that they sell their children for $50-$100 to human traffickers, hoping for an opportunity to earn extra income.
A study by the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University found 1.8 million children working in dangerous conditions in the cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast. However, stamping out child labor and trafficking is a tricky goal to accomplish. With corruption, few resources, and a rural-urban disparity in governance, the government can do very little.
While forced labor and human trafficking are certainly social ills, the Child Labor Tracing System says that the real problem is not children working in the agricultural industry, but lack of education and infrastructure combined with widespread poverty in the Ivory Coast. Oikocredit and our project partner Divine Chocolate are seeking to providepositive solutions that mitigate child labor in the cocoa industry. Farming families and women who feel empowered are more likely to invest in education for their children—and thanks to entrepreneurial training, they have the income to do so.
Divine Chocolate partners with a farmer’s cooperative in Ghana called Kuapa Kokoo to grow cocoa that is environmentally-friendly and child-labor free. Farmers own 50% of the company, and women hold leadership roles such as President of the Cooperative. Thanks to fair trade prices, the cooperative members earn a livable wage that has allowed them to build a school, dig a well, and construct public toilets in their community. A local credit union frees farmers from reliance on big chocolate company loan sharks, and offers start-up capital for small businesses that operate during the off-season for cocoa.
Oikocredit has also made a long-term, sustainable impact in the Ivory Coast. For over 20 years, Oikocredit has maintained regional offices in the financial capital Abidjan and has continued its commitment even during times of civil war. In 2006, Oikocredit funded the creation of the Coopérative de Commercialisation de Produits Vivriers de Angre (COCOVICO), a women’s cooperative organization that operates a large fruit and vegetable market in central Abidjan. Cocovico has empowered Ivorian female microentrepreneurs, offering them an opportunity to improve their living standards via small trade. During the 2010 presidential conflict, the market served an even greater purpose, housing refugees fleeing opposition forces.
The coop has since expanded its scope to support community initiatives such as a kindergarten, police center, public toilets, and a medical facility. These kinds of projects discourage child trafficking by providing a living wage and the necessary infrastructure to offer an alternate future for children.
By offering fair finance to people who otherwise don’t have access to credit, Oikocredit provides support for fair trade activities around the world, such as Divine Chocolate. “Fair trade reminds us that trade is about people, their livelihoods, their families, sometimes their survival”. Remember our global family the next time you’re out shopping for your favorite chocolate bar…