The idea that vast swathes children are being enslaved and forced to work 16-hour days in Ivorian cocoa fields makes for dramatic story. Except that it's not true.
Sikensi - In
Cocoa is crucial to the
Ivorian cocoa typically ends up at ports like
Yao, the fifty-something owner, happily explains that he had always grown a diversity of crops on his farm - "If one cash crop fails, I have income from another; if one food crop fails, we can eat another" - but the atmosphere changes abruptly when we want to take some photographs. Everyone who looks underage is chased off the field.
The incessant reporting about child slaves has made the villagers wary. Child labour has been a staple of Western campaigners in recent years. In late 2012, for example, this website published an article citing estimates that some 1.8 million child labourers are working in
Figures citing hundreds of thousands of child slaves make for sensations headlines, but they don't chime with the reality experienced by farmers such as Yao. "I am sending my children to school and they are also learning the trade exactly the same way as I did: from my parents," he says. "If you have a better idea as to how you can take experience from one generation to the next, I'd like to hear about it."
From Caistab to chaos
Caistab was a state agency that offered farmers a guaranteed market at set prices. The organisation facilitated the buying and selling of the crop and removed many of the risks and uncertainties associated with cocoa farming. However, Caistab also worked to siphon illicit extra funds into the pockets of the ruling party and its leader FÉlix HouphouËt-Boigny.
It was partly this corruption that led the
Liberalising the industry, however, proved to be a hugely problematic. And even today,
Indeed, the cocoa industry disintegrated into a large number of cooperatives and private operators; government oversight and management of the sector lost its coherence as it fractured into various smaller bodies; and a few large multinational buyers were able to use their financial leverage to muscle in on the hitherto protected market and gain a stranglehold on exports.
The big losers were farmer like Yao for whom prices plummeted to the point that growing and selling cocoa sometimes cost them money. Furthermore, the new system hardly rooted out opportunities for corruption. In fact, one could argue that it deepened and intensified it, with vast amounts of embezzled cocoa revenues being used to fund the country's civil war in the mid-2000s.
"With Caistab we had to support a director, his family, his home, his car, his mistress and so on," says one of Yao's fellow farmers from Sikensi. "With the new system in place, we've got to support four of five of these."
Meanwhile journalists trying to expose the rot in the system have - at best - been intimidated into dropping their enquiries. In
Myth and reality
As we can see, there is no shortage of problems within the
Indeed, in a 2013 background paper on forced labour and trafficking in
Returning to the sector's real problems, there has been some notable progress in recent years. With the worst of the country's political crisis has subsided for now, the economy is reportedly recording nearly double-digit growth figures, while the government of President Alassana Ouattara has abandoned the messy system that succeeded Caistab and re-instated a guaranteed basic price for cocoa. It is somewhat ironic that it is the exact same forces that created the chaos of liberalisation that are now trying to undo it; the recent reforms have once again been come amidst pressure from the
However, many problems remain. With cocoa prices differing between neighbouring producers, particularly
The idea that millions of young children are being trafficked, enslaved, and forced to work 16-hour days in dire conditions makes for dramatic and emotive story, and one that campaigners can easily rally around. The concept of inequitable state pricing, misguided economic policies and distorted value chains makes for a much less rousing tale. However, while the former is thankfully a myth, it is the latter that is all too real.
Most Popular Stories
- Koch Brothers Step up Anti-Obamacare Campaign
- Obama Administration Releases Proposal to Regulate For-Profit Colleges
- Elizabeth Vargas' Husband Marc Cohn Addresses Rumors
- Quiznos Files for Chapter 11
- U.S. to Relinquish Gov't Control Over Internet
- FDIC Sues Big Banks Over Rate Manipulation
- Keurig Adds Peet's coffee, Alters Starbucks deal
- SoCalGas Reaches Record Spend on Diversity Suppliers
- U.S. Consumer Sentiment Falls in Early March
- Vybz Kartel Convicted of Murder