As pressure mounts in the United States for ethically produced chocolate, Cote d'Ivoire, the world’s top cocoa producer, is working hard to roll back the use of child labour in its family-owned plantations.
Just days before the world’s chocolate industry outlines a global plan to combat child labour on 1 July, Cote d’Ivoire’s government has begun setting up 73 cocoa-field committees which are intended to stop farmers using children to do adult work.
"Everybody knows that cocoa is the lifeblood of Cote d'Ivoire," said Nissoiti Diaby, a sociologist working with the German aid agency GTZ to set up these committees.
"But what most farmers don't know, is that children shouldn’t carry out certain risky activities. The village committees will help them understand," she told IRIN in Oume, a cocoa-growing town 200 km northwest of Abidjan, where the first monitoring committee has just been set up.
At issue is the use of machetes and pesticides by youngsters, she said.
Machetes are widely used as an agricultural tool in West Africa and occasionally as a weapon of attack. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) considers these long sharp knives to be a hazardous tool which children should not be allowed to handle.
"Many farmers acknowledge that they did not realize their children were carrying out dangerous tasks," Diaby said. "It's almost always a question of ignorance, not of cruelty."
Pointing to the children sitting around him in silent respect, the local chief of Oume said: “They help us out in the school holidays but they never use machetes, they are too small.”
Action against worst forms of child labour
The new grassroots committees are part of a pilot scheme to monitor child labour on Cote d'Ivoire's estimated half a million cocoa farms. They will serve to rehabilitate any children below the legal working age of 14 who are being illegally exploited.
“Any child exposed to, or involved in, the worst forms of child labour will be transferred into the care of welfare officers, schools or an NGO,” said Nadine Assemien, of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) which is also working on the project.
“The idea is to save children, and to help parents get their children into school or into vocational training,” she told IRIN.
The pilot project is a response to worldwide pressure on Cote d'Ivoire to show that it is actively trying to wipe out child labour.
The West African country produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa.
Neighbouring Ghana, which also relies on small family-run farms, occupies the number two slot, with 18 percent of world production.
US congressmen opposed to child labour have demanded that the global chocolate industry present a plan to implement a monitoring and certification system for ethically produced cocoa by 1 July. They have threatened legislative sanctions such as boycotts or punitive tariffs against countries failing to meet their standards.
Cote d’Ivoire ratified a convention outlawing the worst forms of child labour three years ago.
But the country’s three-year-old civil war has hampered efforts to ensure these standards are implemented uniformly in the hundreds of thousands of small farms that produce the bulk of the country’s beans.
UN Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat who was instrumental in developing a key 2001 industry protocol on child labour, has threatened to slap a US ban on cocoa beans farmed by minors.
But in West Africa, some say the controversy serves to highlight the huge cultural gap between western activists and local farmers. The farmers claim their children are not being exploited, but are simply learning a family trade and helping their poor families to make ends meet.
"The culture of teaching children a job at a young age remains very strong in West Africa," said Diaby.
|Cocoa beans drying|
No child "slaves"
The issue of child labour on cocoa farms has a history.
In 2001, a series of press reports in Europe and North America alleged that cocoa farmers were using child slaves to weed their farms and harvest cocoa pods.
These children were alleged to have arrived in Cote d'Ivoire via a giant child trafficking network reaching into the country's poorer northern neighbours, Mali and Burkina Faso.
Several Malian children interviewed by a British film crew said they had been forced into hard labour without pay. They also said they had been physically and mentally abused.
The chocolate industry initially refused comment, but later denied the claims of slavery. But it was too late to stop the international outrage.
The ILO acknowledged that some children had been brought to Cote d'Ivoire to work for little or no pay, but it told IRIN later the same year that it had found no credible proof that an extensive child trafficking network existed.
A 2002 study on child labour in the West African cocoa industry by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) found that 87 percent of the children working on Cote d'Ivoire farms were the farmers' own.
"That study showed that there were in fact no "child slaves" and that most children helped their parents on the farm during the holidays and after school," said Diaby.
"But the damage was already done, and it's very hard to convince people today that Ivorians don't use slaves on their plantations. The story has stuck."
In 2001, a New York Times reporter was sacked for having invented a fictional child slave on an Ivorian cocoa plantation as the focus of a magazine story.
The IITA study noted that 284,000 children worked in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon, Guinea and Nigeria.
In Cote d’Ivoire, several thousand children were found to be using machetes or applying pesticides, but Diaby said this was not evidence of callousness or cruelty.
"They don't let their children spray insecticides because it is dangerous,” she said. “They let them do it so that they learn how to work the farm. This is how they were taught by their own fathers."
The study also indicated that children working on cocoa farms were less likely to attend school.
This tendency was especially notable among the children of immigrant farmers, who had an enrolment rate of only 33 percent.
Many of Cote d'Ivoire's small cocoa farms are run by immigrants from Burkina Faso and Mali, who began moving into the country to seek their fortune when all three states were still part of French West Africa.
Diaby said the 1.3 billion CFA franc (US $ 2.4 million) pilot project to stamp out child labour in cocoa plantations won't change the local culture overnight, but it may shed new light on potentially damaging habits.
"There is a region in Cote d'Ivoire where young girls who can carry heavy loads on their heads are said to make the best future wives. So we want to say to their parents: listen, if you let her do that, she will use up all her strength in youth and she cannot be a good wife later," she said.
Getting children to school
The town of Oume was chosen for the pilot project because it is located in a key cocoa growing region and has many different ethnic groups living closely together, the sociologist explained.
A US delegation is due to visit Oume in mid-July as part of an inspection visit to see if the Cote d'Ivoire government has made any progress towards phasing out child labour.
Diaby also said that the project hoped to convince parents to send their children to school. Education is something that most parents want for their children, but can’t always afford.
One resident in Oume noted that it was particularly difficult for the children of immigrant farmers to go to school since the cocoa farmers and agricultural labourers from Burkina Faso and Mali tend to live in their own isolated communities.
“They came to our country with the whole family and often their homes are located outside the native villages, far from the towns, so it’s harder for them to go to school,” he said.
One local farmer Sylvestre Kabore said he had willingly joined a village committee against child labour.
"The deputy governor came to our village to explain that our children will not grow big and strong if we make them work too hard," Kabore told IRIN. “It was the first time I had heard this but I think it makes sense."
“We want our children to save their strength for later."
In a nearby hamlet, a collection of huts called Keita, the campaign was greeted with equal enthusiasm.
"We all think it's good," said village chief Eduard Moya Boni Bi. "But it does not really apply to us because all our children go to school."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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