The Dark Side of Chocolate: A Story of Child Slave Labor in West Africa’s Cocoa Plantations

With the holidays approaching, I can’t help but notice one of my favorite sweets making an appearance in almost every store I visit. Chocolate is an indulgence most of us in America can’t consider living without. However, after joining the team at the international non-profit, United Aid for Africa, I was motivated to take a second look at how and at what cost, we get our chocolate.

Located on the coast of West Africa, Cote D’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, a $110 billion industry overall. As the demand goes up so must production, which fuels two major problems in West Africa: child slave labor and poverty.

Cote d’Ivoire has an estimated 625,000 children employed as child laborers on small holder Cocoa Farms, with 84% of them never having had access to formal education. Many children must use machetes to strike open the cocoa pod to expose the beans and must deal with hazardous agricultural chemicals daily; an estimated 72% of reported child worker injuries are due to cuts from machetes. Children, as young as 12, are responsible for spraying cocoa pods with highly hazardous chemical fertilizers and without the safety of protective equipment. Farm owners often provide these children with the most inexpensive food available, such as corn paste or bananas and in many cases children have no access to clean water or sanitation. Child laborers may endure these conditions for extended periods of time with devastating and long-term impacts.

According to a report by the International Labor Organization, “each year, as many as 2.7 million healthy years of life are lost due to child labor, especially in agriculture” (International Labor Organization, 2003). Long hours of work over a period can adversely impact a child’s social and educational development. Adolescents, who worked more than 20 hours per week, reportedly display behaviors such as, aggression and substance abuse. In addition, the sleep deprivation they endure often makes them more likely to drop out of school or poses barriers to completing higher education. The deplorable conditions faced by these children illustrate the darker side of chocolate production in some countries.

Now, with the threat of Ebola looming in neighboring countries in West Africa, and although cocoa farmers are abandoning their farms or moving towards more lucrative jobs, there is increased pressure to recruit more children for farm work. According to BBC News, “the Ebola outbreak in West Africa has halted trade,” depreciating agricultural and farming jobs and scaring away investors from further developing in these areas.

Given these multi-faceted issues, socially responsible chocolate consumption offers a potential solution.

If you are an avid consumer of chocolate like I am, there are many ways to responsibly purchase and indulge in this sweet. One way I engage in socially responsible chocolate consumption is by researching the company selling the chocolate. If the company is transparent in the way they conduct business operations and makes a positive difference in the communities where they manufacture the cocoa, then I know that I am consuming a product made with high ethical standards. For additional information on how companies rank in socially responsible chocolate manufacturing business practices, please visit www.betterworldshopper.org/chocolate_data.html. Three essential items I look for when determining whether a business produces chocolate responsibly, include:

  1. Transparency in how they responsibly source their materials
  2. Promotion of environmental stewardship and ethical procedures
  3. Engagement of the community and their employees in how business is conducted

Internationally, there are other current efforts underway to improve responsible sourcing and ethical production.

For example, CNN has launched their Freedom Project in response to the travesties of modern day child labor/slavery prevalent in many of the cocoa farming communities of Cote D’Ivoire. The Freedom project raises awareness about these issues by amplifying the voices of victims, showcasing success stories and helping to end this archaic form of business.

The organization I volunteer with, United Aid for Africa Foundation, is an international 501(c) charitable organization, with a demographic focus on children and women in West Africa. One of their initiatives, the School Supplies Program seeks to make primary education available to children. The program provides children with necessary items for the entire academic year, relieving financial constraints that may dissuade parents from enrolling their children in school. Last year, the UAA School Supplies Program positively impacted the cocoa farming community of Koro in Western Cote d’Ivoire by increasing enrollment of first-sixth graders. While there were an additional 172 additional students enrolled this year compared to last, that number represents only a small dent in the estimated total of 625,000 un-enrolled students. Programs such as this simultaneously address child labor issues, responsible production, and education of citizens.

The next time you consider making a chocolate purchase, consider where it was sourced, how it was produced and whether child labor was used. Being a responsible consumer can ultimately help shape the way food is produced globally and the impact of production on children and society.

Priyanka Surio
George Washington University,
Milken Institute School of Public Health

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