- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast

Five years after Sen. Tom Harkin, Iowa Democrat, proposed legislation to label every chocolate bar sold in the United States with a “free from child-labor” notice, industry workers, government officials and farmers are mired in a mess of sorting out certification to ensure that only adult hands plant, harvest and transport the cocoa beans that are made into M&Ms; and Mars Bars.

“It helps to be aware of the problem, but to solve the problem … I don’t feel we are on the way so far,” said Amouan Acquah, the Ivory Coast government’s special adviser for agricultural commodities.

Since a 2001 report by the International Labor Organization (ILO) found thousands of children working in Ivory Coast’s isolated cocoa farms, the Ivorian government has spent a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor to assess the extent of the situation in six central villages.

It is seemingly impossible to get a sense of the number of children actually working in the cocoa fields, which span some of the Ivory Coast’s more remote regions, hiding small workers in the leafy expanse of the tall cocoa bushes.

One group that opposes child labor quoted a U.S. State Department report saying there are 15,000 children involved. Mr. Harkin’s literature reports there are 5,000 children exposed to the worst forms of child labor, which include working with sharp instruments, heavy loads, chemicals and fires.

The Ivorian government project, meant to train people to teach about the dangers of child labor and set up task forces to monitor the situation, found more than 6,500 children in six villages were “at risk” of the worst forms of child labor.

“We needed to know the reality on the ground. It’s not as exaggerated like they say, but it exists,” Ms. Acquah said.

The ILO found that some children working in Ivory Coast came from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso, desert countries where the economies are desperate and parents send their children to farmers, who sometimes pay their workers nothing. The youngsters are often malnourished and sometimes physically mistreated.

After intense industry lobbying, Mr. Harkin’s motion went from a label on every chocolate bar to a stamp on every bag of cocoa to a certification for every farm using child labor to report its most serious abuses.

With less than six months before the July deadline to begin certification, none of the world’s cocoa-producing countries has managed to solve the riddle of documentation. And Ivory Coast — the world’s biggest cocoa producer — faces the added challenge of a stalemated civil war.

“We can’t monitor every cocoa farm,” Ms. Acquah said. “Farmers just work with children because they won’t have to pay,” she said. “The cost is low. But if a farmer has money, he will pay men to do the work. I can tell you he won’t use a child.”

Harvesting the beans that make the world’s most seductive sweet is hard work. Ripe pods are collected by hand, then split open to collect the seeds, which are dried, fermented, packaged and shipped.

With the war hurting cocoa prices and making the usual migration of adult workers more difficult, more and more farmers are having trouble finding and paying seasonal workers, making children even more vulnerable, said Michel Seka, a project manager with the German Development Agency.

The agency spends about $100,000 each year supporting small programs in 57 cocoa-producing villages, and Mr. Seka’s desk is littered with funding requests for programs aimed at getting children off farms and into school.

He said that while the spotlight on child labor has drastically cut the number of children being sold into the Ivory Coast, parents still use their children for things like transporting 143-pound bags of cocoa, a job that is too hard on their bodies.

Four sets of eyes follow farmer Cheba Ouattara as he pries milky white beans from a slimy yellow cocoa pod in preparation for planting.

Three of Mr. Ouattara’s helpers are his sons, ages 13, 15 and 18. The other is a 4-year-old neighbor, who followed them to the isolated, 40-acre farm in the heart of Ivory Coast’s cocoa region.

To Mr. Ouattara and thousands of West African farmers like him, the children’s presence at the farm is part of the natural teaching process that will prepare his sons for the day they grow their own cocoa.

“You can’t leave your child at the village,” said farmer Eugene Djiara. “They must go to the farm. If you leave them behind in the village, they pick up bad habits.”

Still, Mr. Harkin is pushing ahead with his plan to sign a $4.3 million contract in November with the Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer to monitor implementation of the protocol.

“It’s a shame the Americans don’t come to see what’s happening on the ground,” Mr. Seka said. “It’s not enough to just give money.”

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