ABIDJAN, Ivory Coast — Your guilty pleasure just got a lot guiltier.
Child labor is a significant part of a lot of the production of the world's cocoa, the essential ingredient in chocolate.
About 600,000 children in Ivory Coast work on cocoa farms, out of about 2 million farmers, according to UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund.
Ivory Coast, the world's biggest cocoa producer accounting for almost 40 percent of the world's annual cocoa exports, is working to stop child labor in the production of chocolate's essential ingredient. But that goal remains a distant one.
Ivory Coast has resumed full cocoa production following its election upheavals last year, and it had a harvest of 1.3 million tons last year.
At the entrance to the cocoa farming village of Yakassé-Attobrou, a banner welcomes K.G. "Kip" Walk, the cocoa manager of Blommer Chocolate, the biggest cocoa processor in North America.
A young girl gives him a flower bouquet, and then Walk inaugurates a medical clinic, an award given to the cocoa cooperative for an especially good year.
Earlier in the week, three representatives from Nestlé arrived in Abidjan to investigate child labor in Ivory Coast, the world’s biggest cocoa producer, following a promise in November to probe the practice in its supply chain.
These moves, among others, signify that Ivory Coast's cocoa industry, long associated with exploitation and poor labor practices, is attempting to put on a new face.
More from GlobalPost: Nestle to act on child labor at Ivory Coast cocoa farms
Cocoa, which makes up 15 percent of Ivory Coast’s GDP and 40 percent of its export revenues, feeds the world's annual $83 billion global chocolate business. There's no doubt that cocoa is a big business, but most cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast live in abject poverty and lack the bargaining power to demand higher prices for their crop.
Child labor in the cocoa industry is pervasive. More than 800,000 children in Ivory Coast are believed to do some form of cocoa-related work. Children carrying machetes or pesticide equipment used in cocoa work is common throughout Ivory Coast's cocoa belt.
Big international cocoa manufacturers like Hershey, Kraft, Mars and Nestlé started coming under fire for child labor practices in 2001. That year, cocoa industry representatives signed an agreement to rid the industry of the worst forms of child labor, but little progress was made in 10 years, according to a US-backed report from Tulane University.
Lured by more profitable crops, some farmers in Ivory Coast quit growing cocoa in favor of growing rubber or palms. From 2005 to 2010, cocoa production dipped by 15 percent in Ivory Coast.
Meanwhile, international demand for cocoa is increasing, driven by a burgeoning middle class in India and China. Processors like Blommer will need more cocoa, but the crop is finicky — it’s labor-intensive and only grows in equatorial climates.
“There’s less arable land than before, and palm and rubber are coming in,” Walk says. Now the industry has an interest in improving existing farms, and keeping farmers loyal to cocoa.
The cocoa exporters and processors have started providing cash rewards to cooperatives that meet a certain quota, and over the past three years they have built partnerships with Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, and Fair Trade Certified.
Production of certified cocoa “has been growing very fast. It’s almost doubling every year,” said Eric Servat, the manager of Rainforest Alliance’s cocoa program. “Industry interest is driving growth. They are faced with consumer concerns over child labor and they also want to increase productivity.”
In 2009, Mars committed to sourcing only certified cocoa by 2020.
All of the certification partners require farmers to comply with International Labor Organization standards, which include a ban on child labor.
According to data GlobalPost collected from the three certifiers, 6 percent of the market, or 78,000 metric tons, was certified last harvest, though that figure may be inflated due to double certification, and that figure is expected to grow exponentially in coming years.
But monitoring farms is the “great challenge,” Servat says.
Fair trade auditors are tasked with monitoring about 800,000 family farms, many in hard-to-reach rural areas, making the certificcation process more difficult than simply visiting a factory or even a coffee plantation.
“We are confident in the certification process. We also know that it is extremely difficult to enforce,” said Muriel Guigue, a spokeswoman for the Switzerland-based International Cocoa Initiative.
Because of that challenge, “[There is] obviously a clear commitment but it’s not 100 percent guaranteed that no child works on the farm,” said Guigue.
Under some ageing cocoa trees on his Rainforest Alliance certified farm near Yakasse-Attobrou, Felix Asandé says all the children are in school. But when alone, his orphaned 15-year-old nephew tells me he recently left school and is only working on the cocoa plantation now. He lives with two other teenage boys in a small one-room mud house with a grass roof, and the rest of the family lives in a mud home nearby.
A farmer like Asandé can make $0.10 more per kilogram for his certified cocoa, the difference between $1.17 and $1.27 per kg. But “it’s not enough,” Asandé says. He has been working his farm for 30 years and he still lives in a mud house. Finally he admits that he doesn’t have enough money to send some of his children to school.
Walk says the premium for fair traded cocoa is just a start and that with the training provided through certification programs, farmers like Asandé could increase their yields and their income. But with 2 million farmers to reach, the dream of a cocoa sector that is free from child labor is still a long way from reality.