By Judy Gearhart and Adeline Lambert
Seven days into our trip, and we realized it had been seven days without a single piece of chocolate. This was ironic since we were in Soubré, the “cocoa capital” of Cote d’Ivoire – the largest cocoa producing country in the world. After a torrential storm the night before, the dirt roads heading out to the farms had turned to clay; we couldn’t help but notice how much the pond-sized puddles resembled vats of melted milk chocolate.
We came to West Africa at a turning point in the eleven-year old campaign against child labor in the cocoa industry. With several major chocolate brands making commitments to certify the majority of their cocoa by the year 2020, we have all begun to ask ourselves what this really means for the future of cocoa farmers and their families.
We started from the premise that the only way to meaningfully and sustainably address the worst forms of child labor on West African cocoa farms is to empower farmers to improve their earnings, support their families and send their children to school. We met with companies, government representatives, coops, NGOs and hundreds of farmers who agreed with this premise. Throughout our trip, we focused on a central set of questions: what kinds of initiatives and projects can empower farmers and improve their livelihoods?
It was inspiring to see how communities are benefiting from social programs – schools are being built, micro-projects are being implemented, and boreholes have been drilled for wells. But in the end, we still came back to our core question – have these programs fundamentally changed the nature of the cocoa sector to empower farmers to a better negotiating position?
As we traveled from village to village, it became increasingly clear that the programs and projects developed by companies, NGOs, and the government have been very fragmented and uncoordinated so far. Many of the groups that were guilty of this fragmentation agreed that it was a problem, but expressed hopes that the First Lady’s Initiative would help to solve this problem. The National Plan of Action against Child Labor and the National Oversight Committee chaired by Madame Ouattara is certainly inspiring many, but financing is still needed for its implementation and the infrastructure to ensure programs are implemented throughout the country will take some time. If fragmentation persists, however, Cote d’Ivoire risks ending up with dozens of pilot projects that never culminate in a national solution to the child labor problem.
Part of the plan that companies have set forth in reaching systematic change in the cocoa sector is certification. With the rapid growth of programs driving certifications in the field, we are concerned about the risk of programs scaling up too quickly without ensuring fundamental principles are in place so that farmers’ interests are best served. As the pressure to certify farmers grows, will these initiatives put in the necessary time and resources to empower farmers?
Finally, as much as there is new hope for the children of Cote D’Ivoire, it was clear that more must be done for the victims of child trafficking in the cocoa sector. There are some (but clearly not enough) efforts to return trafficked children to their families or to local immigrant communities around Cote D’Ivoire, but it’s clear that there are not enough resources for the immigrant communities to receive the children or for the local police to support the remediation of the children they find being trafficked. Reports on the effectiveness of these programs were mixed at best, but everyone agreed these efforts are under-financed.
We look forward to returning again and to working with the many committed individuals we in order to dig deeper for answers to these and other questions. The Ivoirians impressed us with their energy, their openness and with how sincere and helpful everyone was – in the projects as well as the people we met on the road. We hope you’ll stay tuned as we continue to advocate for children’s rights and better livelihoods for farmers in the cocoa industry.
Judy Gearhart and Adeline Lambert, with the International Labor Rights Forum, traveled to Cote d’Ivoire in December of 2012.