WASHINGTON _ After months of saying there was little or no evidence of child slavery on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, chocolate manufacturers and their industry groups are ratcheting up global efforts to combat the problem.
The U.S. government is investigating whether to tell its agencies to stop buying cocoa products because of the Ivory Coast slavery, a Labor Department spokesman said Wednesday. A joint industry-government survey of cocoa farms begins next month, and the international cocoa industry has called a special meeting for July to discuss ways to end slavery on the farms that supply cocoa beans.
Reports that enslaved children were working on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and elsewhere in West Africa were circulated by human rights groups as far back as 1998, though government and industry officials said the issue did not take on any urgency until May of this year.
"The way the chocolate industry are falling over themselves to finance projects to assess the extent of the problem, and the way the Ivorian government is taking more serious measures to stem the trade in child labor in all areas, maybe something good will come from all the publicity," said one industry insider who on May 4 said child slavery is a "non-issue in cocoa" and who requested anonymity. A two-month Knight Ridder investigation that began in April found that children as young as 11 were enslaved on some cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. The cocoa beans they harvest are mixed with other beans and shipped to Europe and the United States, where they are made into the chocolate and cocoa products found on every American grocery shelf.
A number of initiatives are getting started.
The United States is expected to decide in the next few months whether federal agencies should stop buying chocolate and cocoa products. The government buys tons of cocoa products, including $1.6 million worth of M&Ms for the Defense Department's ready-to-eat meals for its troops.
Although federal agencies are prohibited from buying products made by enslaved children under a 1999 executive order, chocolate and cocoa products are not on the list of banned products.
In July, researchers will begin looking for child slaves on about 2,000 of Ivory Coast's more than 600,000 small cocoa farms. The survey is part of a U.S.-funded program that initially was designed to teach cocoa farmers marketing and environmentally friendly farming techniques. The program was revamped recently at the request of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, which represents U.S. chocolate makers and which says it will help pay for the survey.
The survey, expected to take six months, also will cover four other cocoa-producing countries in West Africa, Ghana, Cameroon, Nigeria and Guinea. Earlier human rights reports have said slavery is a problem elsewhere in the region, but recent attention has focused on Ivory Coast, which supplies 43 percent of the world's cocoa beans.
The results will be used to help design programs to monitor working conditions on the farms and educate farmers.
"The fact is they (chocolate manufacturers) are now focused on this issue and will be spending their money and time on this issue," said Gary Guittard, chairman of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association. "The ball has started to roll. . . . I don't think it is going to stop."
". . . It is certainly the first step . . . so we can put together the plan to effectively make a change and begin a solution to this," said Marlene Machut of Mars Inc.
Also, an international task force is expected to meet July 28 in London, said John Newman of the Biscuit, Cake, Chocolate and Confectionery Alliance, a European trade association based in London. At the top of the agenda is how to combat child slavery in West Africa.
One option they will consider is how to help Ivory Coast change its agriculture system so that farmers are organized into cooperatives that would monitor working conditions on the farms and work more directly with buyers. That may eliminate the need for middlemen who take a cut of the profit. Ivory Coast government officials and some farmers say falling cocoa prices drive farmers to enslave boys instead of using paid workers.
"If the (chocolate and cocoa) companies make it clear that the farms need to implement core labor standards, then it is an economic incentive" not to use slave labor, said Beth Herzfeld of Anti-Slavery International, a London-based watchdog group that is part of the task force that will meet next month.
Also in July, members of the International Cocoa Organization, the international agency that includes cocoa- producing countries, are expected to ratify a resolution to investigate "criminal labor activity," particularly child slavery, and develop a plan to eradicate the problem, said Dr. Kofi Sarpon at the organization's London headquarters. That ratification will formally commit the producing countries to combating child slavery, he said.