A Sad Day for the Children of Cocoa Farmers

I am very disappointed but I should have expected it. Yesterday, in a joint statement with the Chocolate Industry, Senator Harkin and Congressman Engel basically ratified the very limited efforts of the industry to combat child labor in the cocoa sector. So, for all practical purposes, the crucial part of the 2001 Harkin-Engel protocol, that the industry establish a “credible, mutually acceptable, voluntary, industry-wide standards of public certification, consistent with applicable federal law, that cocoa beans and their derivative products have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor” is dead.

The system that is now in place and that will be completed by December, while “mutually acceptable” to the industry and the law makers, is definitely not “credible.” It does not certify that “cocoa beans have been grown and/or processed without any of the worst forms of child labor.” As I outlined earlier in this blog, the system consists of surveys that document the extent of child labor in Ghana and the Côte d’Ivoire and then verifies that the surveys are accurate. Oh, it also documents what is being done to deal with the problem – by anyone but the chocolate industry.

It’s almost ironic if it weren’t so sad, but the system developed by the industry certifies that, yes, cocoa in West Africa is produced with the worst forms of child labor. Except now we know for sure. Children still handle chemical pesticides and fertilizer, they still use machetes to clear brush and open the pods, they still carry heavy loads that lead to stunted growth and other developmental problems and they still are not in school.

I had no expectation that the industry would develop a true certification system. Their responsibility, unfortunately, is only to their shareholders, not the children of cocoa farmers. But I kept hoping that Senator Harkin and Congressman Engel, once the saw the “certification scheme,” would just tell the industry to get back to work or else. But that shows how naive I can be.

It is clear to me that everyone involved, the industry, the politicians and the governments in Africa, just wanted this issue go away. Now they have achieved that goal. From now on, whenever someone raises the issue of child labor, they can point to their system. And when the critique continues, it can be dismissed as unreasonable. Business as usual. And for that they took seven years!

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2 thoughts on “A Sad Day for the Children of Cocoa Farmers

  1. Beth

    I’m a grad student working on a paper regarding the appropriate consumer response/action to this knowledge. I’m wondering your thoughts on boycotting versus buying just Fair Trade versus some other action… How do we protect the small farms not practicing child labor while making a conscious consumer choice and “voting with our dollar?”

  2. Michael Post author

    Hmmm, boycotting seems appealing at first glance, but will probably not make much of a difference. Chocolate made from West African beans is too widespread around the world, it would be very difficult to generate the kind of global movement necessary to make a boycott effective.

    Also keep in mind that a boycott will hit farmers first. And farmers should not be penalized for adapting to low prices that are beyond their control.

    Fair Trade is one avenue to pursue since it helps educate consumers about the conditions of farmers that grow cocoa. I’m not sure that it will be enough, given the small market share that FT currently occupies.

    In the end, I believe consumers of chocolate must contact their political representatives and demand action at the political level. Either by pushing the chocolate industry to do more or by negotiating new international agreements that help support farmers.