Tackling child labour in chocolate – chunk by chunk?

11 Nov 2011 18:01

by Barbara Crowther, Director of Communications & Policy, Fairtrade Foundation

A TV report from the BBC’s Humphrey Hawksley (11 November) has yet again thrown a spotlight onto the continued scandal of hazardous child labour on cocoa farms in Cote D’Ivoire.

And it would take a hard heart not to be moved when listening 12 year old Kuadio Kouako talking about how he hasn’t seen his family for three years since his father sent him on a 200 mile journey to work in the cocoa fields. Or shudder at the scars from machete accidents whilst breaking open cocoa pods.

Ten years on from the establishment of the Harkin-Engel Protocol to end child labour in West African cocoa, the era of denial is over, and everyone – from the chocolate industry to the Ivorian government – at least now agrees not enough progress has been made.  That includes those of us working in Fairtrade – where we have been taking steps to improve our own systems of auditing, training, farmer support and child protection over the past few years.

Fairtrade producer organisations, such as Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana, have launched their own farmer led programmes. Last September, on a visit to Cote d’Ivoire I was able to witness a child labour awareness programme taking place (supported by one of the chocolate companies and the International Cocoa Initiative), not just with farmers, but with everyone in the village including the children themselves, emphasising responsibility across the whole community. 
Yet, one striking moment in the BBC’s piece was the farmer’s own complaint that the price of cocoa was currently very low. How could this be, when the news has been so full of stories of record high cocoa prices being traded? Take a look at our global cocoa price chart to see this.

In Ivory Coast, the mindboggling system in which the big cocoa trading houses subcontract down the chain to local traders called ‘traitants’ and ‘pisteurs’, create long, complex and entirely untraceable supply chains, in which most individual small farmers have no idea what that week’s trading price is meant to be, and most chocolate brands have no idea what the farmers were paid at farmgate.

Meanwhile, at the Fairtrade organisation Kavokiva, President Fulgence N’Guessan showed me how the coop s text messages price changes in a cascade through to their members. The coop keeps clear records of what was sold and how much was paid to farmers. It’s a small thing, but one step forward in building transparency, and the empowerment and market knowledge of cocoa farmers.
Another interesting angle for the BBC on this issue could have been to explore the impact for cocoa farming communities of the recent civil war in Cote d’Ivoire that broke out following last year’s Presidential elections when incumbent Laurent G’bagbo refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, triggering a spate of violence that forced many Ivorians, including Fairtrade farmers, to flee their villages into Abidjan, or across the border into Liberia.

Efforts to build sustainable cocoa chains, and tackle poverty and child labour suffered a serious knock back. We’ve heard directly from our partners in Cote d’Ivoire of farmers that were killed, farms that were abandoned, crops hijacked, warehouses ransacked, and vehicles stolen. Sales of cocoa came to an entire halt for several months. The trauma and tension is still not over. Farmers are struggling to get back on their feet. We’re working on a needs assessment to see how best to support farmers groups to rebuild not just their livelihoods but also their organisations, and trust within their communities.
That’s why work to tackle child labour must be rooted in a much more holistic approach to poverty, more equity in trade and supply chain management, better governance and promotion of human rights.

Fairtrade can contribute by promoting sustainable farming practices, supporting farmer organisations with fair pricing and premiums to invest towards local community programmes. But the honest truth is that neither we, nor the chocolate companies, hold the entire solution in our own hands – it’s going to take all of us – from chocoholics (like me) to big cocoa traders and manufacturers to NGOs and government, working together, if we really want to see the kind of progress that the children of Ivory Coast both need and deserve.

Read more about Fairtrade’s approach on child labour and child protection here.

Read Fairtrade’s Cocoa Briefing here.

Image ©Gary Roberts depicts a child from Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana, a Fairtrade producer organisation

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