Those along 'chocolate chain' pass blame

How could modern society allow youngsters to be enslaved to produce a crop that becomes the very food -- chocolate -- that symbolizes happiness, luxury and romance?

It can happen because it's nearly hidden. The enslaved boys whom Knight Ridder found worked mostly on small farms scattered in remote parts of Ivory Coast. Few people get to the farms, even those in the cocoa trade. If they visit and see children at work, it's nearly impossible to tell if the children are members of the farmer's family or have been bought by the farmer, who may or may not pay them after years of work.

That allows everyone along the chocolate chain to pass blame and responsibility for the boy slaves to someone else. Farmers who use slaves blame the people responsible for the price of cocoa. Middlemen who deal with farmers say they don't see any slavery. Ivory Coast government officials who enforce slavery laws say it's foreigners who are selling and using slaves in their country. Cocoa suppliers say they can't be responsible because they don't control the farms. Chocolate companies say they rely on their suppliers to provide cocoa untainted by slave labor. The trade associations blame Ivory Coast's unstable political situation. And consumers don't have an inkling that their favorite chocolate treats may be tainted by slave labor.

Sekongo Nagalouro doesn't think the boys working on his Ivory Coast farm are slaves. It's true that he gave a trafficker money for them. And it's true that he hasn't paid them yet for the work they do. But he intends to pay them at the end of the year from his crop profits, he said. Providing he can take care of his family and future crop expenses first. It all depends, he said, on the price of cocoa.

"Maybe there are some people who think this is modern-day slavery, but I don't think so," Nagalouro said.

Many who acknowledge that slavery exists offer the same explanation: the low price of cocoa.

"We cannot blame the farmers for exploiting these workers," said Abdelilah Benkirane, commercial director of the Society of Commercial Agricultural Producers of Daloa, one of Ivory Coast's biggest cocoa and coffee buyers, which exports 80 percent of its purchases to the United States and Europe. "The farmer has no influence on the global system. The system dictates the price."

Ivory Coast government officials concede that slaves work on some of the country's cocoa farms. But they believe that slavery is a small -- though spreading -- problem confined mostly to farms run by foreigners.

"Thank heavens the proportion of this type of criminal farmers remains very low still," Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister Alfonse Douaty told members of the cocoa industry who were meeting in London in May. "One must also observe that a minuscule part of the native population is starting, nevertheless, to get involved."

Douaty also blames cocoa prices and says other nations must help.

" . . . At an international level, we must also combine our efforts in committing to prices which provide sufficient income to the basic producer, so as to avoid perpetuating poverty in exporting countries and thus creating the conditions which lend themselves to the development of slavery in whichever form it presents itself."

People who work in the cocoa and chocolate industries aren't sure there really are slaves harvesting the beans they buy and process.

"You damn Americans with your Nike shoes think there is child slavery in chocolate," said Valerie Issumo, who goes into the fields as a buyer in West Africa for ED&F Man, a top cocoa processor. "I have never seen any child slaves in all my travels through Africa."

"Everyone we have talked to in the country who has worked there years and years has never seen this practice," said Larry Graham, president of both the National Confectioners Association and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of Vienna, Va.

"If it exists, then we are going to correct it," Graham said, ". . . starting with government action, working with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and educating farmers. . . . That is, if there is a problem."

Weeks later, Graham conceded that slaves do work on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. "Initially, there was quite a lot of debate about whether this was true and how serious it was," he said Friday. " . . . Now we are not debating that this is true. We're accepting that this is a fact."

"It's not clear how big or small it is," said John Faulkner, spokesman for Godiva chocolates, which uses a lot of Ivory Coast cocoa because of the fine flavor. "There are people who have been to the Ivory Coast 50 times and say they have never seen this. . . . But just because you haven't seen the problem doesn't mean there isn't the problem. Let's be clear about that."

Faulkner said Godiva's cocoa supplier, Barry Callebaut, based in Zurich, Switzerland, gave assurances that "No slavery practices have been reported, and none would be tolerated. "

But, he conceded, "I can't guarantee anything. Candidly . . . to be able to sit here and guarantee that it is not happening, it's not being realistic."

"What we don't control we cannot guarantee," said Willy Geraerts, director of corporate quality for Barry Callebaut. "When the cocoa comes to us, it is such a long chain, and before it gets to us, controlled by middlemen along the way. I don't think that any company today . . . can give this guarantee."

People who buy the finished chocolate product say they are largely powerless to address the issue, if they know about it at all.

"We are definitely aware of it and definitely concerned about it, but being a very small voice to our suppliers, you can't easily go demanding a lot of things," said Tim Bergquist, president of International Chocolate Co. in Salt Lake City. The company sells single-origin chocolates, including some made from Ivory Coast cocoa beans.

"It's more a matter of economics than a lack of principle," Bergquist said.

"We buy a finished product long beyond the bean," said Gary Regenbaum of Mom 'n Pops candy company of New Windsor, N.Y., which buys chocolate to coat its lollipops. "I have never considered where the beginning of this product came from. . . . I'll look into this and make every effort to stop it."

Most distant of all from the cocoa farm is the consumer, who has little reason to think about who harvested the cocoa beans that went into the gaily wrapped chocolate at the candy counter.

"In Canada, Europe, America, what we have on our shelves is cheap, such as coffee, chocolate bars," said Michel Larouche, the West Africa regional director for Save the Children Canada. "If we put a stop to child trafficking the prices of certain things -- cotton shirts, coffee, candy bars -- will rise. The reality is if your products are this cheap, it's because of this situation."

"Are (the companies) responsible?" Larouche said. "It's hard to say one is responsible. It's easier to look at who is not responsible."