Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
November 28, 2005
Sweeten the farmers' pockets
The use of slave and child labour in the production of cocoa in West Africa became an issue of pressing public concern about five years ago. The media turned their cameras on the region where 70 per cent of the world's cocoa is produced after a U.S. State Department report said 15,000 children had been sold into slavery on cocoa, cotton and coffee plantations in the Ivory Coast in recent years.
The resulting outcry - and the threat of U.S. congressional action - led the world's major chocolate firms to sign an agreement in 2001 to voluntarily eliminate all child and forced labour in the production of chocolate, establish independent monitoring and, by July 1, 2005, develop a sustainable method of verifying working conditions.
While some progress has been made, the 2005 deadline has been pushed back three years. The multinationals have backed away from their pledge to eliminate child labour and now say they will only reduce it by 50 per cent.
Further, the multinational corporations are refusing to buy cocoa from fair trade farmer co-ops.
Reforming the cocoa industry is not easy. In the Ivory Coast, which has 43 per cent of global cocoa production, about 1.2 million households have cocoa farms, the vast majority of them five to 10 acres in size. In Ghana, there are another 800,000 cocoa-producing households.
The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture estimates that cocoa farmers bring home between US$30 and $108 a year for each family member. There is a great need for low-cost workers to produce and harvest this labour-intensive crop.
Workers must cope with frequently unsafe working conditions such as the use of pesticides, the use of heavy machetes and the carrying of excessively heavy loads. With the use of child labour, these are even greater concerns.
Middlemen, who buy the cocoa and sell it to the multinationals, have been the key to keeping people in poverty. Farmers are frequently unaware of the price they should get for their cocoa and are vulnerable to deception by middlemen who use their own scales to weigh the crop.
Government efforts to establish and enforce a national price have largely been futile because of grower isolation and vulnerability.
A major step forward would be the organization of cocoa farmers into democratic co-ops that are able to do away with the middleman and deal directly with the multinationals. The Kuapa Kokoo Co-op in Ghana has 47,000 farmer-members and has tried to sell its cocoa on a fair trade basis. It has been able to do that with small non-profit organizations that import fair trade products to the First World.
But the multinationals refuse to pay the marginally higher prices involved. (Cocoa farmers currently receive less than one cent for every chocolate bar sold.)
If the multinationals met Fair Trade guidelines, they would help to end child or forced labour, use sustainable production methods, improve educational opportunities and help to alleviate poverty. If they abided by these guidelines, they would also provide strong encouragement for more cooperatives to form.
Nestle recently attracted attention in the United Kingdom by introducing a line of fair trade coffee there but, like other firms, has resisted introducing fair trade chocolate.
Reform of the cocoa industry may be difficult, but it's not impossible. Consumer awareness and advocacy in First World countries would be a major step towards reform.
Christmas is a prime season for giving chocolates. One small way of taking a stand on this issue is to buy your chocolate this year from the Edmonton council of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development Peace or from small retail outlets that stock fair trade products.
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