Learning to keep children off cocoa farms in Ghana

No matter how busy he gets, cocoa farmer Simon Afram never keeps his children home from school to work on his farm.

“If you don’t let a child go to school, it will spoil his future,” Afram said. “I don’t want them to become farmers and suffer like me.”

For Afram, education offers his children the chance of an easier life and a more secure future, far away from the groves of yellowing cocoa pods where his family’s livelihood is at the mercy of the weather, and a fluctuating world market price.

It’s an attitude many would like to spread through the cocoa plantations of West Africa, which have come under scrutiny for the use of children labour in harvesting the cocoa pods which form the basis of the lucrative global chocolate industry.

Afram has just finished a class with other farmers in the middle of a cocoa plantation. Sitting on rocks and pieces of wood and dressed in second-hand Western clothes, they describe the aches and pains they get from long hours working with machetes, chemicals and heavy bags of cocoa.

“Now,” asks teacher Charles Bartels, “what would it be like to be a child working in the field?”

The class, which also teaches crop maintenance and other techniques, is run by the Sustainable Tree Crops Program (STCP) a joint initiative of the United States Agency for International Development (USAid) and the World Cocoa Foundation, which groups national cocoa growers associations and big international firms.

Household names such as US candy makers Mars and Hershey and Swiss food giant Nestlé have become deeply interested in the opinions of farmers like Afram on child labour—it could affect their bottom lines.

Since reports of child slavery on cocoa farms in Ghana’s neighbour Côte d’Ivoire emerged in the late 1990s, the chocolate industry has been under pressure from rights groups and consumer associations to prove its cocoa is not cultivated by children.

But the battle to eradicate child labour is complicated by cultural differences, a lack of information and economic reality.

Silenced by fear

The world’s top producer Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the second-largest grower, between them produce almost two-thirds of the world’s cocoa.

A 2002 survey by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture said 284 000 children were working in dangerous conditions on West African cocoa farms, mainly in Côte d’Ivoire.

Activists and aid organisations say child workers are trafficked from poor countries on the borders of the Sahara, like Burkina Faso and Mali, to cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire.

The industry is working to a July 2008 deadline to have 50% of cocoa-growing areas in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire certified, which would mean that child labour conditions are being monitored in those areas—a compromise which some non governmental organisations (NGOs) find unacceptable.

Industry—which has already missed a 2005 deadline—argues that credible data is needed before action can be taken. It is also working through the International Cocoa Initiative to promote better labour standards on cocoa farms, a fight in which the Ghanaian government is also involved.

The official Ghanaian line has always been that trafficked children do not work on its cocoa farms.

But Alhassan Osman, a research fellow at Accra’s University of Ghana who carried out a survey on cocoa farms for Swedish NGO Swedwatch last year, said officials kept silent over Ghana’s child labour problem for fear it would hurt the sector.

About 30% of those who work on cocoa farms in one of the country’s biggest cocoa-growing towns are children, the majority of whom have travelled from the poor north to work and have often been trafficked by agents, he said.

“For a country like Ghana, where the economy still thrives on cocoa, some officials say saying [child labour] exists might lead to an embargo, it might cast a slur on the cocoa we export,” he said.

Long view

In both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, growers who are too poor to pay labourers sometimes use their own children to work. NGOs say that depressed international prices encourage this practice.

In his class, Bartels tries to promote a longer-term view.

“If you earn good money and [your children] go to school, what happens to you in the future? They take care of you.”

But farmers say they are training their children to harvest cocoa so they can fend for themselves in the future.

“There is a problem in that some children are helping their parents to produce cocoa. It is a form of training for the child in the family business,” said Rita Owusu Amankwah, the country’s national programme manager on child labour and cocoa.

She says trafficked children do not work on Ghanaian farms, and that most children who do work on the plantations also go to school. It is key to ensure that children who work on cocoa farms only engage in light work, she added.

For the Ghanaian authorities, cocoa’s importance to the country’s coffers certainly lends the battle added urgency.

“Cocoa contributes a lot to this economy, we don’t want it to be targeted. If people say we are using children’s blood, they might try to boycott our cocoa,” said Owusu Amankwah. - Reuters

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