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Karen Coleman: Chocolate's dark side leaves bitter taste in mouth

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An Ivorian women shows dry cocoa beans at her village

An Ivorian women shows dry cocoa beans at her village

An Ivorian women shows dry cocoa beans at her village

I don't want to rain on your Easter parade, but if you're looking forward to tucking into your Easter egg tomorrow, bear this in mind. It's possible that child slaves were used in its production and some of them could be as young as 5 or 7.

Worse still, they may have been stolen from their families and trafficked into a strange country and forced to do back-breaking and dangerous work on cocoa farms.

This is not a remote possibility. This is a very real probability because hundreds of thousands of children are exploited in the cocoa trade. Their unpaid labour helps produce the cocoa that in turn is used to make our Easter eggs and other chocolate delights.

Here's what's happening.

Cocoa is the indispensable ingredient that feeds the multi-billion chocolate industries. Around 70pc of cocoa comes from West Africa and mainly from the Ivory Coast and Ghana. It's a vital source of income for the farmers who grow it but children are frequently exploited in its production.

UNICEF says around 600,000 children are used in cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and that many of them are denied access to school and other basic human rights. And that may be a conservative estimate.

According to Tulane University in New Orleans, the exploitation is much higher. Tulane recently carried out a comprehensive investigation into the cocoa trade in West Africa. They estimate that a staggering 1.8 million children work in "cocoa-related activities" in the Ivory Coast and Ghana and that a minuscule number of them are paid for their work.

Tulane says these children are frequently exposed to "hazardous activities", including "land clearing and carrying heavy loads".

The majority of the cocoa is produced on small farms and not on large-scale plantations run by rich land owners. UNICEF says the "mosaic of small-scale growers struggle to make ends meet" and they "rely on child labour to increase the family revenue". Many of the kids working in the cocoa fields are the children of the growers.

It's backbreaking and hazardous work. The children have to go into the bush to access the cacao trees that grow the precious cocoa pods. Wielding dangerous machetes, they cut down the pods and crack them open. The cocoa beans are then extracted, dried and bagged for sale. Many of the children who harvest the cocoa don't go to school and they are rarely paid for their hard labour.

And there's a more sinister side to the cocoa trade.

Thousands of children are trafficked every year into the Ivory Coast and Ghana to work as slaves on cocoa farms. Many of them come from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali.

A recent CNN 'Freedom Project' investigation revealed the hardships experienced by these child slaves. When the CNN journalist David McKenzie travelled deep into the Ivory Coast jungle, he came across a 10-year-old boy called Abdul. He had already been working on the cocoa farm for three years.

CNN filmed Abdul walking through the bush to get to the cocoa pods. The young boy, who was wearing a torn yellow t-shirt and ragged trousers, told CNN he was from Burkina Faso and that he had been brought to the farm by a stranger after his father died.

Abdul was effectively a child slave who was forced to work every day for the luxuries we love to eat.

In the film, you see the small boy using a machete to cut the cocoa pods. It's a mindless task that denies him his freedom and education. He told CNN he didn't get paid for the work but just got food, an occasional tip from the owner, and the torn clothes on his back.

Strangers aren't the only ones trafficking children for the chocolate industry. Families can also be complicit. CNN interviewed another boy from Burkina Faso who was working as a child slave on a cocoa farm in the Ivory Coast. He told David McKenzie his mother had brought him there after his father died. The 16-year old had scars on his legs from machete wounds sustained after spending hours clearing the bush. He was upset and seemed traumatised by his experiences. He said he wished he could go to school to learn to read and write but he hadn't spent a day in a classroom.

It's hard to imagine luxuries like our Easter eggs having such unjust origins. Sadly, the exploitation of children is an integral part of the chocolate trade. Over the past decade, various efforts have been made to eradicate child labour in cocoa harvesting. Two US politicians instigated the most famous initiative in 2001. The New York Democrat congressman, Eliot Engel, and his colleague, senator Tom Harkin from Iowa, wanted the chocolate industry to stop buying cocoa from growers who were exploiting children.

They created the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

Initially, they wanted chocolate companies to mark their products with labels saying "no slavery here". But after intense lobbying from the industry, they were forced to water down their legislation and impose a voluntary code instead.

Eleven years on, we are still eating chocolate and other cocoa products that have used children in their production.

And we love our chocolate in Europe. In fact, the EU consumes nearly half of all chocolate produced in the world. But few of us are aware of its darker side and hardly any of us scrutinise chocolate labels to check for suspicious signs that children may have been used in its production.

Moves are afoot to change that.

Last month, the European Parliament passed a resolution calling for action against the use of children in the cocoa trade. MEPs want everyone in the cocoa value chain, from the growers and processors to governments, traders, chocolate producers and consumers, to play their part in fighting child labour and trafficking in the sector. They're also demanding better branding about the products' origins.

These initiatives may take some time to materialise. In the meantime, it's up to all of us to be aware of what we're putting into our mouths when it comes to enjoying these scrumptious treats.

Happy Easter!

Irish Independent