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IVORY COAST: Slave Labor Taints Sweetness of World's Chocolate

by Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana ChatterjeeKansas City Star
June 23rd, 2001

DALOA, Ivory Coast -- There may be a hidden ingredient in the chocolate cake you baked, the candy bars your children sold for their school fund-raiser or that fudge ripple ice cream cone you enjoyed Saturday afternoon.

Slave labor.

Forty-three percent of the world's cocoa beans, the raw material in chocolate, come from small, scattered farms in this poor west African country. And on some of the farms, the hot, hard work of clearing the fields and harvesting the fruit is done by boys who were sold or tricked into slavery. Most of them are between the ages of 12 and 16. Some are as young as 9.

The lucky boys live on corn paste and bananas. The unlucky ones are whipped, beaten and broken like horses to harvest the almond-size beans that are made into chocolate treats.

Aly Diabate was almost 12 when a slave trader promised him a bicycle and $150 a year to help support his poor parents in Mali. He worked for a year and a half for a cocoa farmer known as "Le Gros" ("the Big Man"), but he said his only rewards were the rare days when Le Gros' overseers or older slaves didn't flog him with a bicycle chain or branches from a cacao tree.

Cocoa beans come from pods on the cacao tree. To get the 400 or so beans it takes to make a pound of chocolate, the boys cut 10 pods from the trees, slice them open, scoop out the beans, spread them in baskets or on mats, and cover them to ferment. Then they uncover the beans, put them in the sun to dry, bag them and load them onto trucks to begin the long journey to America or Europe.

Aly said he doesn't know what the beans taste like after they've been processed and blended with sugar, milk and other ingredients. That happens far away from the farm where he worked, in places such as Hershey, Pa.; Milwaukee and San Francisco.

"I don't know what chocolate is," Aly said.

Hungry for a Job

The "locateurs" wait in the Sikasso bus station where crammed minibuses leave for Ivory Coast every 30 minutes. They search the crowds for Mali children traveling alone, looking lost or begging for food.

"Would you like a great job in Cote d'Ivoire?" they ask, using the official name of the former French colony. "I can find you one."

This is a part of Africa where many men have two or three wives and dozens of children, and it's common to see boys and girls as young as 6 selling coconut milk in shells on the streets.

Malian children whose parents are too poor to afford proper schooling are often placed with better-off families to learn skills such as farming. The apprenticed children are treated properly and almost always return home.

For decades, the more prosperous Ivory Coast has offered a living -- but also a chance to see the world outside their villages, to learn skills and to bring home money after a year or two.

That the tradition has been perverted is made clear at the border. In theory, children younger than 18 cannot cross unless accompanied by an adult. No questions are asked if the adult is a relative, so traffickers often order the children to call them "uncle" or "aunt."

"The police sometimes check the IDs, and sometimes they are the ones taking bribes," said Felix Ackebo of UNICEF.

Every month, traffickers bring as many as 10 boys to Siaka Cisse's small, ramshackle house in Daloa, well south of the border.

Virtually all the boys are illiterate, but the 60-year-old former bus driver gets them to sign -- more like a scratchy squiggle -- a "contract" scrawled in French on notebook paper. It says they agree to work for about $180 a year.

Cisse, who has 20 children of his own, said he receives only a small "gift" from each farmer -- $1 or $2 per child. But a boy named Mombi Bakayoko said his master paid Cisse about $13 for him, and a $20 "transport fee" to the trafficker who brought him to Ivory Coast.

Three children Cisse placed said they had to give him a cut of what they had earned.

"I have no deal with the kids," responded Cisse. "The farmers pay me."

Does he see anything wrong with dealing in children?

"I don't know their ages," he said. "I only pick sturdy kids."

Cisse said it's not his fault if farmers abuse the children. He said he had gone to farms a few times to retrieve children after they sent messages to him.


"Lack of food, for example."

What did he do with those children?

"Found them work with other farmers." At the boys' request, he said.

Big Business

Americans spend $13 billion a year on chocolate.

In the first three months of this year, more than 47,300 tons of Ivory Coast beans -- prized for their quality and abundance -- were shipped to the United States.

By the time the beans reach the processors, those picked by slaves and those harvested by free field hands have been jumbled together in warehouses, ships and rail cars. By the time they reach consumers, free beans and slave beans are so thoroughly blended that there is no way to know which is which.

That some chocolate has the bitter taste of human misery is accepted by many familiar with the conditions in west Africa.

  • The State Department's year 2000 human rights report concluded that some 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 from poorer neighboring countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo have been sold into forced labor on northern Ivory Coast plantations in recent years.

  • A June 15 report by the Geneva-based International Labor Organization found that trafficking in children is widespread in west Africa.

  • Even the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a trade group for American chocolate makers, acknowledges that slaves are harvesting cocoa on some Ivory Coast farms.

  • Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister Alfonse Douaty calls child slavery a marginal "clandestine phenomenon" existing on only a handful of 600,000 cocoa and coffee farms.

"Those who do this are hidden, well hidden," Douaty said.

He said the practice should not be called slavery, because the word conjures up images of chains and whips. He prefers the term "indentured labor."

America's biggest cocoa processors are ADM Cocoa in Milwaukee, a subsidiary of Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland; Barry Callebaut, which has its headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland; Minneapolis-based Cargill; and Nestle USA of Glendale, Calif., a subsidiary of the Swiss food giant.

Many chocolate manufacturers, such as Mars Inc., maker of M&Ms and Snickers bars, did not respond to questions for this story. Others, such as Hershey's, said solving the slavery problem is an important one for the industry.

The third-largest U.S. chocolate manufacturer is Russell Stover Candies. Tom Ward, president of the Kansas City company, said its supplier contracts prohibit the use of child labor -- much less child slavery -- to produce any ingredient or material. The contract defines a child as anyone younger than 15 "or younger than the compulsory age to be in school in the country in which the vendor is doing business."

If suppliers knowingly violate that condition, he said, "obviously, they've got a serious problem with me."

Child slavery, Ward said, "is just not acceptable," and he noted that he might hold his supplier legally liable for delivering tainted goods. "I have a reputation to maintain."

Ward said his company does not buy beans from Ivory Coast but does get chocolate from suppliers who trade there. They have assured him the slavery problem didn't relate to them, he said.

Inhumane labor conditions is a worldwide problem that American companies must heed, or face severe public reaction, he said.

"Any company that does not understand the impact that can have is not very smart," Ward said.

Nightmare Conditions

Aly Diabate and 18 other boys labored on a 494-acre farm, very large by Ivory Coast standards. Their workdays began when the sun rose and ended just before nightfall. They trudged home to a dinner of burned bananas. If they were lucky, they were treated to yams seasoned with saltwater "gravy."

After dinner, the boys were ordered into a 24- by 20-foot room, where they slept on wooden planks without mattresses. The only window was covered with hardened mud except for a baseball-size hole to let some air in.

"Once we entered the room, nobody was allowed to go out," said Mamadou Traore, a thin, frail youth with serious brown eyes who is 19 now. "Le Gros gave us cans to urinate. He locked the door and kept the key."

"We didn't cry, we didn't scream," Aly said. "We thought we had been sold, but we weren't sure."

The boys became sure one day when Le Gros walked up to Mamadou and ordered him to work harder. "I bought each of you for 25,000 francs (about $35)," the farmer said, according to Mamadou. "So you have to work harder to reimburse me."

Aly was barely 4 feet tall when he was sold into slavery, and he had a hard time carrying the heavy bags of cocoa beans.

"Some of the bags were taller than me," he said. "It took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you didn't hurry, you were beaten."

You can still see the faint scars on his back, right shoulder and left arm.

"The beatings were a part of my life," Aly said. "Anytime they loaded you with bags and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again."

At night, Aly had nightmares about working forever in the fields, about dying and nobody noticing. "I was always thinking about my parents and how I could get back to my country," he said.

But he didn't think about trying to escape.

"I was afraid," he said, his voice as faint as the scars on his skinny body. "I had seen others who tried to escape. When they tried, they were severely beaten."

Le Gros' Story

Le Gros, whose name is Lenikpo Yeo, denied that he paid for the boys who worked for him, although Ivory Coast farmers often pay a finder's fee to someone who delivers workers to them. He also denied that the boys were underfed, locked up at night or forced to work more than 12 hours a day without breaks. He said that they were treated well and that he paid for their medical treatment.

"When I go hunting, when I get a kill, I divide it in half -- one for my family and the other for them," he said. "Even if I kill a gazelle, the workers come and share it."

He did not beat the boys, he insisted.

"I've never, ever laid hands on any one of my workers," Le Gros said. "Maybe I called them bad words if I was angry. That's the worst I did."

Le Gros admitted a Malian overseer beat one runaway, but he said he himself did not order any beatings.

But last year, a boy named Oumar Kone was caught trying to escape and was beaten by one of Le Gros' overseers, according to the other boys and local authorities.

A few days later, Oumar tried again, and this time succeeded. He told elders in the local Malian immigrant community what was happening on Le Gros' farm. They called Abdoulaye Macko, then the Malian consul general in Bouake, a town in the heart of Ivory Coast's cocoa- and coffee-growing region.

Macko arrived with the police and found 19 boys. Aly, the youngest, was 13. The oldest was 21. They had spent anywhere from six months to four and a half years on Le Gros' farm.

"They were tired, slim, they were not smiling," Macko said, recalling especially one child. "This one, his face showed what was happening. He was sick; he had (excrement) in his pants. He was lying on the ground, covered with cacao leaves because they were sure he was dying. ... He had been severely beaten."

A few days later, the boys, many with infected wounds on their bodies, were sent home to their villages in Mali.

Le Gros was charged with assault against children and suppressing the liberty of people. The latter crime carries a five- to 10-year prison sentence and a hefty fine, said Daleba Rouba, attorney general for the region.

Le Gros spent 24 days in jail and today is awaiting a court hearing. Rouba said the case against Le Gros is weak because the witnesses against him have all been sent back to Mali.

"If the Malian authorities are willing to cooperate, if they can bring two or three of the children back as witnesses, my case will be stronger," Rouba said.

Mamadou Diarra, the current Malian consul general in Bouake, said he would look into the matter.

Child trafficking experts say inadequate legislation, ignorance of the law, poor law enforcement, porous borders, police corruption and a shortage of resources help perpetuate the problem. Only 12 convicted slave traders are serving time in Ivorian prisons. Eight others, convicted in absentia, are on the lam.

Modern-Day Slavery?

"It's not clear how big or small it is," said John Faulkner, spokesman for Godiva chocolates. He said Godiva's cocoa supplier, Barry Callebaut, based in Brussels, Belgium, gave assurances that "no slavery practices have been reported and none would be tolerated."

But Willy Geraerts, director of corporate quality for Barry Callebaut, conceded, "What we don't control we cannot guarantee."

The middlemen who buy Ivory Coast cocoa beans from farmers and sell them to processors seldom visit the small farms, and when they do, it's to examine the beans, not the workers.

Young boys are a common sight on the farms of west Africa, and it's impossible to know without asking which are a farmer's own children, which are field hands who will be paid $150 to $180 after a year's work, and which are slaves.

"We've never seen child slavery. We don't go to the plantations. The slavery here is long gone," said G.H. Haidar, a cocoa buyer in Daloa. "We're only concerned with our work."

Sekongo Nagalouro said, "Maybe there are some people who think this is modern-day slavery, but I don't think so."

It's true that he gave a trafficker money for the boys working on his farm. And it's true that he hasn't paid them yet for the work they do. But he intends to pay them at the end of the year from his crop profits, he said. Providing he can take care of his family and future crop expenses first. It all depends, he said, on the price of cocoa.

World cocoa prices have fallen almost 24 percent since 1996, from 67 cents a pound to 51 cents. This forces impoverished farmers to look for the cheapest labor they can find.

Abdelilah Benkirane, at the Society of Commercial Agricultural Producers of Daloa, one of Ivory Coast's biggest cocoa and coffee buyers, said: "We cannot blame the farmers for exploiting these workers. The farmer has no influence on the global system. The system dictates the price."

The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, based in Vienna, Va., at first said the industry was not aware of any slavery. After Knight Ridder began inquiring about the labor force on farms, however, the association in late April said it strongly condemned "these practices wherever they may occur."

In May, the association decided to expand an Ivory Coast farming program to include education on "the importance of children."

"Yes, indeed, I think there is a problem," Chairman Gary Guittard said this month. The association now is funding a survey of child labor practices, which Guittard sees as an important first step.

"I'm very hopeful that the very fact that people are going out into the bush and looking at this stuff is going to change it," he said. "I just think that in itself will change it."

Aly's Happy Ending

Ivory Coast authorities ordered Le Gros to pay Aly and the other boys a total of 4.3 million African Financial Community francs (about $6,150) for their time as indentured laborers. Aly got 125,000 francs (about $180) for the 18 months he worked on the cocoa farm.

Aly bought himself the very thing the trader who enslaved him had promised: a bicycle. It has a light, a yellow horn and colorful bottle caps in the spokes. He rides it everywhere.

Aly helps his parents by selling vegetables in a nearby market, but he still doesn't understand why he was a slave.

When he was told that some American children spend nearly as much every year on chocolate as he was paid for six months' work harvesting cocoa beans, he replied without bitterness:

"I bless them because they are eating it."

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