understanding cocoa cultivation is the key to ending the practice

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In 2000 and 2001, the use of child slaves on cocoa plantations in West Africa was exposed in a series of documentaries and investigative journalism articles, sparking international outcry.

This series of events was far from unprecedented.

As discussed in my article, since the 19th century when cocoa was first introduced to Africa (and despite the formal abolition of domestic slavery in the region), cocoa cultivation in West Africa has been linked to accounts of slavery and the resulting protests by chocolate consumers. in Europe and America.

As recently as the beginning of the 20th century, the Portuguese imported slaves to São Tomé and Príncipe to work on the cocoa plantations. This process was described by British journalist Henry Woodd Nevinson, who had been funded by Harper’s Magazine to investigate rumors of forced labor on cocoa plantations. When arriving in São Tomé or Príncipe, each slave was asked if he was ready to work there. Nevinson reported:

In most cases, no response was given. If an answer was given, no attention was paid to it. A contract was then established for five years of work.

This allowed Portuguese and chocolate producers in Europe to argue that the workers were contract workers rather than slaves. However, the “contracts” produced made no sense, as slaves were not allowed to leave the plantations for five years.

Some things have changed since then. Modern slavery primarily involves the trafficking of children, who are treated as a “disposable” source of labor. However, some things remain the same. Cocoa buyers and chocolate makers still employ various strategies to deny, deflect, and deflect when the issue of child slavery arises.

Modern slavery and chocolate makers

After the practice was exposed in the 2000 documentary Slavery: A Global Investigation, the chocolate industry initially denied that trafficked children were involved in the cultivation of cocoa. In response, civil society groups in chocolate consuming countries have launched a campaign calling for the end of child slavery in the cocoa industry.

The campaign was particularly successful in the United States because of its unique history of slavery. This led to a US representative, Elliot Engel, to introduce legislation requiring chocolate makers in the United States to label their products “slave-free” to prove that no child slaves were involved in their supply chains.

Chocolate companies initially responded by hiring professional lobbyists to prevent the passage of “slave-free” legislation in the US Senate because of the legal implication of such a label.

Subsequently, conceding that child slavery could actually exist in their supply chains, companies took a different approach. They partnered with various stakeholders to create the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which effectively suppressed the 2000-2001 campaign. But it was a tactic.

The Harkin-Engel protocol defined six specific actions on a date that were supposed to lead to the establishment of an industry-wide standard for product certification on July 1, 2005. However, the deadline was extended until 2008, then until 2010. After 2010, the protocol was fundamentally abandoned.

Following the failure to meet the 2005 deadline, some American activists have turned to the courts, sponsoring former slaves to directly sue the chocolate multinationals. However, all hope of winning these cases was lost in June 2021, when the United States Supreme Court ruled that companies such as Nestlé and Cargill could not be prosecuted for child slavery in their supply chains.

Activists were clearly at a disadvantage compared to chocolate makers, not least because they did not fully understand the root causes of child slavery in cocoa cultivation in West Africa.

The causes

The issue of child slavery in cocoa farming in West Africa has only been dealt with superficially in the literature. Surveys and survey-type studies have sought to determine the extent of child slavery (and child labor) in West African cocoa farming, but they have failed to consider its causes.

One example is a series of field surveys conducted by Tulane University to determine the prevalence of the worst forms of child labor in cocoa farming in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.

Meanwhile, investigative reports and television documentaries have painted only a qualitative picture of the phenomenon. One example is the 2010 documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate. This was intended to provide visual evidence of child slavery in cocoa production in West Africa. Representatives of the chocolate industry declined both requests for interviews and invitations to watch the film.

Filmmaker Miki Mistrati aired the documentary on a big screen next to Nestlé’s headquarters in Switzerland, preventing employees from seeing child slavery in the company’s supply chain.

Academics, journalists and filmmakers addressing the subject of child slavery in West African cocoa farming have so far not addressed the history of cocoa farming and the evolution of the cocoa growing process.

Engaging in this story properly would help activists against child slavery understand exactly what they are up against. The conditions that created a demand for cheaper sources of labor in the past are still in place today, and no one understands them better than the multinational chocolate companies.

This was the subject of my research.

These conditions stem from changes in the labor / land ratio required to continue growing cocoa. The availability of forest land is the deciding factor.

Cocoa cultivation once involved consecutive phases of boom and bust, followed by a move to a new forest area (shift of production), a different product in the same area (diversification), or a cocoa growing system. different requiring additional production factors. Studies of cocoa cultivation in West Africa have provided evidence of the migration of planters to new forests after depleting existing forest lands, leading to the displacement of production centers within and between countries.

However, accessing new forest land is becoming increasingly difficult and it takes a lot more labor to replant cocoa than to plant on pioneer forest soil.

This labor problem is particularly pronounced in cocoa growing areas that have depended on migrant labor in the past (such as Côte d’Ivoire). Here, a reduction in migration over time, coupled with deforestation, has resulted in a labor crisis: although post-forest cultivation requires more labor than pioneer plantation, less labor. artwork is now available. To continue growing cocoa, planters in these regions turned to cheaper sources of labor, such as family members and children.

This change in labor relations seems to have led to an increase in child slave labor.

Invest time

Chocolate producers such as Mars and Nestlé are well aware of the labor problem in cocoa cultivation. Historically, this problem has led to diversification: when cocoa became difficult to grow, growers turned to other products. While such diversification may be good for farming communities, it heralds bad news for buyers of the commodity. This has led multinationals to intervene under the banner of sustainability to prevent diversification away from cocoa. Their “sustainability” programs are ostensibly designed to tackle child labor, slavery or trafficking or child labor. However, they are in fact productivity programs with token anti-slavery components.

It is no longer enough to show that child slavery exists in cocoa farming in West Africa. To have a chance to combat these practices, activists must invest time and effort to truly understand the processes and conditions that create them.


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