2001: Slavery in the cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast

McClatchy NewspapersJune 24, 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 farms in the poor West African country of the Ivory Coast. 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.

These children and teenagers carry 50-pound bags of cocoa beans that are as tall as they are, often as far as a mile. They go shirtless under the tropical sun, and sometimes the rough jute bags scrape holes in the thin skin of their shoulders.

The lucky slaves live on corn paste and bananas. The unlucky ones are whipped, beaten and broken like horses to harvest the beans that are made into chocolate treats for children in Europe and the United States. Children for sale

About 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 have been sold into forced labor on the cotton, coffee and cocoa farms in northern Ivory Coast in recent years, the State Department's 2000 human rights report concluded.

Siaka Traure and Brahima Male are two of those children. They went to the little bus station in Sikasso, Mali, two years ago, looking for work. Siaka, who was 14, two years older than Brahima, packed his best olive green shirt because he expected to have a good time in Ivory Coast.

Slave traders hang around the bus station, looking for children who seem lost or hungry. One of them told Siaka and Brahima that his big brother in Ivory Coast would pay them each $170 a year to be welders or construction workers. He offered to take them there for free.

Instead of the good time they were looking for, the boys found Dote Coulibaly, a farmer who needed two boys to work on his cocoa and coffee farm. He bought Brahima and Siaka for $28 each, he said.

Staggering tasks awaited both boys.

From start to finish

Cocoa beans come from pods on the cacao tree. To get the 400 or so beans it takes to make a pound of chocolate, 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 journey to the United States or Europe.

Most of the boys don't know what cocoa beans taste like after they've been processed and blended with sugar, milk and other ingredients. That happens far away from the farms where they work, in places such as Hershey, Pa., Milwaukee and San Francisco.

Americans spend $13 billion a year on chocolate, but most are as ignorant of where it comes from as the boys who harvest cocoa beans are about where their beans go.

Ivory Coast cocoa beans are prized for their high quality and abundance, and the United States' biggest cocoa processors use them.

But by the time the beans reach the processors, those picked by slaves and those harvested by paid field hands have been jumbled together in warehouses, ships, trucks and rail cars. By the time they reach consumers in the United States or Europe, free beans and slave beans are so thoroughly blended that there is no way to know which chocolate products taste of slavery and which do not.

However, even the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, a trade group for U.S. chocolate makers, acknowledges that slaves are harvesting cocoa on some Ivory Coast farms.

In a statement, the Vienna, Va., trade group 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." And in June, the CMA agreed to pay for a survey of child labor practices on Ivory Coast cocoa farms.

Finally, on Friday, the CMA announced some details of the joint study, which will survey 2,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast.

"Now we are not debating that this is true," CMA president Larry Graham said Friday when asked about cocoa farm slavery. "We're accepting that this is a fact."

A 1998 report from UNICEF cited Ivory Coast farmers as using enslaved children, many of them imported from the poorer neighboring countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo. A report released June 15 by the Geneva, Switzerland, International Labor Organization, a worker's rights group, found that trafficking in children is widespread in West Africa.

'I bought each of you'

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 11/2 years 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.

Aly and 18 other boys labored on a 494-acre farm, very large by Ivory Coast standards, in the southwestern part of the country. Their days began when the sun rose, which at this time of year in Ivory Coast is a few minutes after 6 a.m. They finished work about 6:30 in the evening, just before nightfall. Then, they trudged home to a dinner of burned bananas.

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 filled with hardened mud, except for a baseball-size hole to let in some air.

"Once we entered the room, nobody was allowed to go out," said Mamadou Traore, a thin youth who is 19. "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)," Mamadou said the farmer told them. "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."

Faint scars remain 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."

Free at last

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 they were treated well and that he paid for their medical treatment.

He said he didn't beat any of the boys.

"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."

But after one of the boys ran away and told elders in the community what was happening on Le Gros' farm, police officers investigated. The boys were freed, and Le Gros was charged with assault against children and suppressing the liberty of people. He faces a court hearing this week.

Ivory Coast authorities ordered Le Gros to pay Aly and the other boys 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.

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

When he was told that some U.S. 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."

Keeping slavery alive

Child trafficking experts say inadequate legislation, ignorance of the law, poor law enforcement, porous borders, police corruption and a shortage of resources help keep slavery alive in the 21st century. Only 12 convicted slave traders are serving time in Ivory Coast prisons. Eight others, convicted in absentia, have fled.

Ivory Coast officials blame immigrant farmers from Mali and world cocoa prices that have fallen from 67 cents a pound in 1996 to 51 cents, forcing poor farmers to use the cheapest labor they can find.

Siaka and Brahima have been working on Coulibaly's farm near Daloa, Ivory Coast's cocoa-growing center, for two years without pay. When Siaka tried to run away last year, Coulibaly beat him, Siaka said.

"He tied me behind my back with rope and beat me with a piece of wood," the boy said.

Coulibaly denied beating Siaka. But he didn't apologize for intimidating and bullying the boys.

"If I let them go, I'm losing money because I spent money for them," he said.

He told the boys he intends to pay them, but falling cocoa prices and unexpected expenses keep getting in the way. Maybe at the end of this year, he said.

Coulibaly doesn't watch the boys as closely now. Because he owes them money, he knows they won't run away.

"If you leave, you are the loser, and he'll be happy," said Brahima, watching Siaka work in the olive green shirt he had brought for the good times in Ivory Coast. It is now in tatters.

How to contact U.S. chocolate makers

Here's what some of the biggest companies involved in chocolate production had to say about young slaves being used on farms in Ivory Coast, the world's largest grower of cocoa beans. Though many companies use Ivory Coast cocoa, there is no way to know if the cocoa they buy came from farms that use slaves.

Hershey Foods Corp.

Role: No. 1 chocolate manufacturer in the United States; makes Hershey's Milk Chocolate, Reese's, Hershey's Almond Joy, Whoppers and Rolo candies. Also processes cocoa.

Response: Would not say if it uses cocoa from Ivory Coast. Is working with the Chocolate Manufacturers Association to address the issue. Will allocate money and personnel for the association's investigation. "Issues like this are extremely important to us," vice president John Long said. "This is a very complex issue without any solution that is quick and easy."

Contact information: Hershey Foods Corp., 100 Crystal A Drive, Hershey, PA 17033. By phone: (717) 534-6799. Online: www.hersheys.com

Mars Inc.

Role: No. 2 chocolate manufacturer in the United States; makes M&Ms, Mars, Twix, Dove, Snickers and Milky Way candies. Also processes cocoa. Uses cocoa from Ivory Coast.

Response: Did not respond to questions or requests for comment.

Contact information: Mars Inc., 6885 Elm St., McLean, VA 22101. By phone: (703) 821-4900. Online: www.mars.com

Russell Stover Candies

Role: No. 3 chocolate manufacturer in the United States; makes Russell Stover, Whitman's and Pangburn's candies. Buys from suppliers who use cocoa from Ivory Coast.

Response: Tom Ward, company president, said his company's supplier contract s prohibit the use of child labor to produce any ingredients or materials. Ward said child slavery "is just not acceptable" and that he might hold his supplier legally liable for delivering tainted goods.

Contact information: Russell Stover Candies, 4900 Oak St., Kansas City, MO 64112. By phone: (816) 842-9240.

Nestle USA

Role: Chocolate manufacturer; makes Nestle Crunch, Kit Kat, Smarties, Baci, After Eight, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger, NesQuik and Carnation drinks. Supplies chocolate to other manufacturers and small confectioners under the brand Peter's Chocolate. Also processes cocoa. Uses cocoa from Ivory Coast and has a warehouse in Daloa, Ivory Coast.

Response: Did not respond to questions or requests for comment.

Contact information: Nestle USA Inc., 800 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale, CA 91203. By phone: (818) 549-6000. Online: www.nestle.com.

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