When night comes, Drissa is again locked into a small room with 17 other teenage boys, with one tin can to share as the toilet. He, like his “roommates,” have been tricked into a life of slavery. Stopped on the city streets of Korhogo, in West Africa’s Ivory Coast, Drissa was offered what he thought was a good job working on a cocoa plantation. When he reached the isolated farm, however, he soon realized he was taken there as a slave. He tried to escape but was savagely beaten.
West African nations such as Ivory Coast and Ghana lead the world in cocoa production, harvesting about 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa, the raw material in chocolate. With a million cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast alone, these African economies are hugely dependent on cocoa. Finding cheap labour for these farms is simply a matter of reaching out to the poor and desperate with promises of fair work and good wages.
It’s easy to lure children from poverty-stricken families where parents sometimes sell their children to “recruiters” for as little as $1.50, assuming their kids will get a chance at a better life. Traffickers play on these hopes and dreams, spending up to two months in certain areas recruiting and even convincing parents to pay the passage fee from the village to the farms. “You can make a lot of money in the Ivory Coast that will let you buy a bicycle, clothes, or food for your family,” is a bold but effective line that traffickers reportedly use to recruit young workers and legitimize their search. Unfortunately, the promises of being able to support your family or afford small luxuries are too good to be true.
Drissa’s captors controlled him and other slaves not only with brutality, but also with a psychological terror—they were told a tale that they were under a magic spell, and if they tried to run away they would be paralysed.
Some still dared to run away. Once recaptured (as they almost always were) the runaways were beaten. Stripped of their clothes, their hands tied behind their backs, they were viciously whipped over several days with the farmer repeatedly demanding an answer to the impossible question, “How did you break my spell?” The others watched in fear. Some boys did not survive, those that did were put back to work as soon as they could walk. Their wounds, like the ones found on Drissa, became infected and they had to rely on the maggots feeding on their flesh to clean the wounds and save them from gangrene. The brutality, isolation, hunger and exhaustion, all combined to break the spirit and will of Drissa and his fellow captives, locking them into years of slavery.
North America is the leading world consumer of chocolate. The US $13 billion American chocolate industry imports 729,000 tons of cocoa beans and processed products. In 2000, Americans consumed 1.5 billion kilograms of chocolate. Canadians love the stuff too: each year consuming 6.7 kilograms per person, or the equivalent of three chocolate bars every week.
Some of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers like Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé are literally making chocolate “one of life’s guilty pleasures.” Hershey Foods has issued a statement saying it was “shocked” and “deeply concerned” that its products, like Hershey’s Kisses and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, may have been made with cocoa produced by child slaves. The company, which is affiliated with schools for orphaned and disadvantaged children, said it was deeply embarrassed by revelations of indirect involvement with child slavery.
While these companies and other cocoa importers have issued condemnations of slavery, and expressed a great deal of moral outrage, they admit that they do use West African cocoa, and so have no grounds to ensure consumers that their products are slavery-free.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that individual cocoa farmers generally sell their harvests to a central agency that then exports the cocoa to the rest of the world. It’s tough to figure out which cocoa beans came from a slave farm and which didn’t. While some activists have called for chocolate boycotts, an effective boycott would only crush these struggling West African economies, devastating the lives of millions of already poor families.
The better approach would be to continue to publicize the child slavery issue, keeping up pressure on food companies to try to do whatever they can to avoid purchasing cocoa produced on slave farms. There are also a number of “fair trade” organizations that are trying to make sure that farmers in the developing world get a fair price for their crops so they earn better profits and pay their workers. For example, TransFair certifies products that meet recognized standards of fair trade, including a guarantee that there’s no slavery involved. At the moment none of the cocoa from the Ivory Coast receives the FairTrade Mark, so a start would be to help more farmers earn the FairTrade Mark.
Western governments and international aid groups should also actively try to help these West African nations to crack down on the nightmare of child slavery. The Canadian government, which gives foreign aid directly to the Ivory Coast, needs to understand that we want some of that aid to help people out of slavery: people like Drissa.
HOW TO GET INVOLVED:
1. Write a letter to your local MP urging support of anti-slavery efforts.
2. Write a letter to the editor or an article in your local newspaper.
3. Contact TransFair Canada for information on the availability of Fair Trade Certified products.
4. Buy Fair Trade chocolate for gifts that show you care about fairness for everyone. Or sell Fair Trade chocolate as a fundraiser for your church, school, or community group.
Fair Trade chocolate is available at http://store.globalexchange.org/chocolate.html
5. Get stores in your community to carry Fair Trade chocolate.