Diplomatic Pouch / August 30, 2012
By Larry Luxner
Chocolate is sweet and delicious, but few chocolate lovers realize the bitterness of child labor and worker exploitation often associated with cocoa plantations. A recent study by Tulane University reports that 1.8 million West African children are involved in cocoa-growing — with many of them handling machetes and pesticide equipment.
Rather than sweep these abuses under the rug, the $90 billion global chocolate industry says it’s ready to tackle the emotionally charged issue head-on. Last month, the Washington-based World Cocoa Foundation signed a memo of understanding with Côte d’Ivoire — the world’s largest cocoa-exporting nation — to develop and implement educational and vocational training programs that will benefit more than 12,000 farmers and their families.
The $3.6 million accord was signed July 19 by WCF Chairwoman Anne Alonzo and First Lady Dominique Ouattara, whose husband, President Alassane Ouattara, took power last year in a hotly contested election that plunged the country into civil war.
“Our crisis was so profound, so deep,” said Daouda Diabaté, the nation’s ambassador to the United States. “But today, all the signals are green in Côte d’Ivoire, and it’s a very different environment.”
The extremely formal ceremony, attended by about 125 diplomats, food-company executives and other dignitaries, was held amid unusually tight security, due to the presence of the First Lady. All visitors to the newly renovated Ivorian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue had to pass through metal detectors and were patted down by embassy security personnel before being allowed entry inside.
“Today marks an especially important day for our World Cocoa Foundation family — a family made up of governments, companies, civil society and caring friends,” said Alonzo, who’s also vice-president for global public policy at Kraft Foods. Other companies at the event included ADM, Cargill, Hershey Foods and Mars & Co.
“We are here for two reasons: the first is to strengthen our relationship with the Ivorian government at the highest levels for the direct benefit of our cocoa-growing communities via the signing of a memorandum of understanding,” said Alonzo. “Secondly, we’re here to award a champion and heroine of women and children across Africa, First Lady Dominique Ouattara.”
About a dozen countries worldwide are cocoa exporters, yet Côte d’Ivoire accounts for nearly 40 percent of total exports; other leading African suppliers are Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria. According to published reports, Côte d’Ivoire accounts for more than 800,000 of the 1.8 million children believed to be working in cocoa.
Africa as a whole produces 2.8 million metric tons of cocoa, or 73 percent of the world total, says the WCF. The Southeast Asian nations of Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea account for another 623,000 tons (14 percent), followed by the South American countries of Brazil and Ecuador, which produce 563,000 tons, or 13 percent.
The WCF was founded in 2000; its 90-plus member companies currently represent 80 percent of the global corporate market; these include manufacturers, cocoa processors, chain managers, trade associations and other essential businesses.
WCF President Bill Guyton said his organization “will work together like never before” to implement the agreement, which outlines joint efforts with Côte d’Ivoire over the next two years and has been more than a year in the making. In addition to the $3.6 million, he said the WCF has identified more than $1 million in private money to support West Africa under the Cocoa Communities Development Fund.
“This MOU is more than just a piece of paper,” he said. “It provides a framework over the next two years for WCF and the Ivorian government to share information, plan activities together and draw on each other’s expertise to reduce the worst forms of child labor in Côte d’Ivoire. A holistic approach is necessary if we truly want to address the root causes of the problem. For that reason, the WCF — with funding from USAID and no fewer than 16 of our members — are working to implement a range of programs that will focus on basic education and training in cocoa-growing communities.”
In accepting the award, Madame Ouattara praised the WCF’s efforts to combat the “atrocity” of child exploitation in cocoa production. She noted that the ceremony took place just after the reclassification of Côte d’Ivoire from a Tier 3 country to a Tier 2 in its progress against child labor abuses.
“It is certain that together, we will be stronger and better able to insure a brighter future for our children, by allowing them to take their places on school benches instead of on cocoa plantations,” she said, speaking in French through an interpreter. “For me, the fight against child exploitation and its eradication — in all its forms — is chief among the priorities I have set for myself as First Lady.”
That commitment began Nov. 3, 2011, when her husband appointed her head of the National Oversight Committee on child trafficking, exploitation and labor.
“This cause is a fundamental one for me because, as a mother and activist for the rights of children and as First Lady, I could not let this evil continue depriving our children of their best years and ruining their future,” she said. “With the committee that I chair and the inter-ministerial committee represented today by Minister Raymond Coffie, we have immediately begun to work to develop a National Action Plan against trafficking in children.”
The plan won’t come a moment too soon. According to the Tulane study, fewer than 4 percent of people (including 33,000 children) in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing communities were helped by previous chocolate industry programs between 2001 and 2009. The U.S. Department of Labor has called that report “credible and reliable.”