Child labour concerns give cocoa a bitter taste
Nigeria’s generations-old father-to-son farming life is in jeopardy—because of concerns over the child labour it involves.
Alowonle Ajayi, a farmer in his mid-fifties, harvests cocoa pods from his plantation of tall, old trees using a pole with a sickle attached.
Ajayi’s five-acre property was inherited from his father, who taught him what being a cocoa farmer is all about.
The property is situated near Akure, capital of the western state of Ondo. Ajayi recalls that as a child, he accompanied his father to the plantation during school holidays and over weekends.
On a Saturday earlier this month, Ajayi’s six children could be found following in their father’s footsteps.
Along with the farmer’s two wives, some children gathered the cocoa pods in a heap at the front of their home: a mud hut with a corrugated iron roof. Others sat removing seeds from the pods after slicing them in half.
“As you can see, these children help me. Just as I did for my father years back. It is the tradition here. It is like the son of a fisherman going fishing with his father,” said Ajayi.
In recent years, however, this tradition has risked being undermined by growing concern for thousands of children who work on West African cocoa plantations that are not owned by their families.
Rights activists claim that many of these children are subject to hazardous conditions, including exposure to pesticides and being required to use dangerous tools like machetes. Some are housed in appalling conditions and get paid little or nothing for their efforts—effectively forming a slave labour force.
Even children who work in a family setting may find themselves deprived of the education that would enable them to work their way out of poverty in later life.
Fears about the safety of child workers have focused attention on the cocoa industry in a way that recalls the publicity generated by the sale of conflict diamonds. As 2003 winds down, the controversy about West African plantations is still on the boil—albeit with less fanfare than in previous years.
According to a report issued last year by several research institutes and aid agencies, upwards of 250Â 000 children who work on cocoa farms in the region are at risk. The International Labour Organisation and the Nigeria-based International Institute of Tropical Agriculture were two of the organisations that helped compile the report.
Activists draw the distinction between children who work with their families on cocoa farms, and minors who are trafficked from desperately poor nations like Burkina Faso to the richer states of Nigeria and CÃ´te d’Ivoire.
Children in the second group are often sold to traffickers by their parents, in the hope that they will be able to send home remittances—or carve out a better life for themselves.
All too frequently, this dream is not realised.
Nigerians fear, however, that steps that are being taken to curb this problem will have a negative effect on family concerns and exploitive land-owners alike.
These steps include a push in the developed world to make consumers boycott chocolate that is not made from “fair trade” cocoa. This is cocoa that is grown on farms where labour conditions have been certified as acceptable.
Victor Iyama, President of the Cocoa Association of Nigeria, says a national committee to investigate the extent of child slave labour on farms has been set up.
“One case that was reported to us in Ondo state by an international organisation was found to be untrue after investigations. We discovered that the allegation was borne out of misunderstanding of the Nigerian culture,” he said.
“How can you classify a teenager who follows his father to his farm as child labour?”
There are even dark mutterings in Nigerian cocoa circles that the campaign in support of “fair trade chocolate” is a ploy by Western countries to keep cocoa prices at their current low levels.
Iyama said prices have fallen by almost half this season compared to those paid at the beginning of last season. Cocoa beans are currently selling for about $1Â 500 per ton on the international market—against last year’s price of $2Â 100.
The mistreatment of children on cocoa plantations is a small part of the overall picture of trafficking in the region. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that 200Â 000 children are trafficked each year in West Africa to serve in a variety of roles—from farm workers to domestic servants.
Media coverage of this problem has prompted the Chocolate Manufacturers Association in the United States to put forward a plan for addressing the problem of slavery on plantations. The survey on the extent of child labour was the first step in this process, which is being implemented with the assistance of United States authorities, other governments and NGOs.
While the media might place this initiative under greater scrutiny in 2004, families like the Ajayis will also be looking on with interest at global efforts to balance tradition with justice.—Sapa