Report: Almost 300,000 children enslaved on West Africa's cocoa farms

WASHINGTON--Nearly 300,000 children are working on cocoa farms in West Africa in dangerous conditions that endanger their lives, according to a long-awaited report on the working conditions on the small, scattered farms.

At least 6,000 of the children may be enslaved on farms in Ivory Coast, the world's leading producer of cocoa, the raw ingredient in chocolate, according to the new report, which was done by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture for the U.S. Agency for International Development. The report is due to be released next week.

A draft of the report says researchers found hundreds of thousands of children performing hazardous tasks, including spraying pesticides, carrying heavy loads and using machetes to harvest cocoa pods, maintain trees and clear fields. The majority of the children are under 14 years old, and boys account for 59 percent of the children working on the cocoa fields, according to the draft report.

While the vast majority of children work on family farms, 12,000 children had no family connection to the cocoa farmers who employed them, the preliminary report says. Only 5,100 of them were paid for their work. Nearly 6,000 are likely "unpaid workers with no family relations," said a congressional aide who was briefed by USAID about the report on Friday. The report does not use the word slavery.

The survey found that 2,500 children had been taken from neighboring countries by intermediaries to work on farms in Ivory Coast and Nigeria. It's unclear from the preliminary report how many of these children were bought and sold and how many left their homes willingly, only to discover that they would not be paid for their labor. In its 2001 human rights report, the U.S. State Department estimated that 10,000 to 15,000 children are trafficked in Ivory Coast.

Researchers estimated that 100,000 children on cocoa farms never attended school and that children in Ivory Coast, which produces 43 percent of the world's cocoa, were the least likely to go to school. When children did attend, the survey found, girls were less likely to be enrolled than boys were.

"We have an obligation to make sure that children are in schools, not working in dangerous conditions," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who pressured the chocolate industry to eliminate child slavery on cocoa farms.

A Knight Ridder investigation last year found that children as young as 11 had been sold or tricked into slavery on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. Four West African nations, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria, together produce 70 percent of the world's cocoa.

"Clearly poverty is the underlying cause for the child labor situation in Africa," said Jim Gockowski, who led the study. Some cocoa farmers told Knight Ridder last year that they had intended to pay their workers but could not because the price of cocoa dropped.

The cocoa and chocolate industry vowed last year to end the practice, but executives had been waiting for the survey results to develop new programs. The research is "the first step" to understanding the "nature and extent of the problem and why it exists," according to a fact sheet by USAID, which sponsored the study.

"Many people are waiting anxiously to put plans into motion to improve the lives of children throughout the west coast of Africa," Rep. Engel said. He is on the advisory board of a newly formed international center to combat slavery in cocoa farming that's funded by the chocolate industry.

Work on cocoa farms is often backbreaking labor, even for adults. Football sized cocoa pods have to be cut off trees; acres of bush and jungle have to be weeded, cleared and maintained. "There is little use of mechanized tools," notes the preliminary report.

"These children are not only working in dangerous jobs, there are also losing the chance for an education. That's a lose-lose proposition," said Thomas B. Moorhead, Deputy Under Secretary of Labor for International Labor Affairs.

Researchers fanned out through the four West African countries to interview 4,800 farmers, child and adult laborers, and local leaders to inquire about working conditions on the farms. Many of the researchers had to trek miles to reach the farms and ask about whether children were ever paid, if they went to school and whether they were related to their employers.

The survey was formulated by experts from the United Nations, the World Bank, UNICEF, and from union, labor and human rights groups and local non-governmental organizations.

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