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Cocoa and Conflict

Syeda Shamin Mortada

Children as young as nine are tricked or sold into slavery to work on cocoa plantations in Cote d' Ivoire. Photo: International labour Rights Fund

The ultimate temptation of many food lovers; little pleasures placed in, bars and boxes; the close companion for moments of loneliness, chocolate continues its sweet tooth conquests! The favourite flavour for many, chocolate is used as the key ingredient in a variety of foods - candy bars, cookies, milk shakes, flavoured coffee, cereal and even medicine. Within everyone's reach, chocolate has become an indulgence and a sweet part of life. Ivory Coast is the world's largest producer of cocoa, the main ingredient of chocolate. Yet, few of the billions of consumers of chocolate around the world know about the dark side of this popular treat; many of us are not aware of the role that the cocoa trade has played in the armed conflict and political crisis in Africa in recent years.

Wars need money and since the end of the Cold War natural resources have played an increasingly prominent role in providing this money. Many of the conflicts of the world were financed by superpower blocs in the past, but since such ideological sponsorship have become very hard to come by, belligerents have started to use easily accessible wealth by exploiting minerals, timber and other natural resources and commodities. The outcome, a long trail of war crimes, atrocious human rights violations, violations of international humanitarian law, devastated infrastructures and daunting tasks of rehabilitation and reconstruction.

The way that timber and blood diamonds have adversely affected the lives of the people in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and oil has stimulated violence in Niger Delta, cocoa has managed to do the same in Ivory Coast. It has been seen that many of the continent's most bitter conflicts took place in areas richest in natural resources.

This West African nation, world's number one cocoa producer, has been racked by instability since a 2002 civil war. The Ivory Coast had been split in two between the government and rebel-held regions. According to the London based group Global Witness, millions of dollars worth of cocoa revenue have funded both sides in the conflict, with the tacit acceptance of cocoa companies based in America and Europe. Ivory Coast's government and rebels plundered the cocoa sector to finance the so called war; the report by anti-graft campaign group Global Witness said President Laurent Gbagbo squeezed more than $58 million dollars from the cocoa industry to fight rebels during the civil war. Exports from cocoa contributed to as much as 30 per cent of the government military expenditure and provided about $30m a year to rebel groups since 2004. The rebels themselves garnered a further $30 million a year by smuggling a proportion of the crop grown in the north of the former French colony, which they controlled during the war. Global Witness argues that the misuse of funds earned from the cocoa trade continues to slow progress towards a final peace agreement. It is therefore calling for international efforts to break the links between the cocoa trade and the armed conflict.

The country accounts for about 40% of the world cocoa production and it is the main economic resource representing on average 35% of the total value of Ivorian exports per year. Out of a total population of about 16 million, around 3 to 4 million work in this sector. The production of cocoa developed mainly under the French colonial rule. Côte d'Ivoire was already producing cocoa before it became a French colony in 1893. After developing an interest in timber, then cotton, the French colonial authorities focused on exploiting cocoa as an export product. Cocoa production expanded in the 1990s, when the French authorities evicted communities and displaced tens of thousands of people to work on the cocoa plantations.

The process from cocoa to candy and beans to bars also contributed to violations amounting to crimes under international law. Many cocoa companies have faced charges of child labour on many of the Ivorian cocoa plantations. Being the leading exporter of cocoa to the world market and having an international public appeal the existence of child labour is linked to the entire international community. It became the target of allegations by international rights groups that children are working as slaves on its cocoa plantations. It is said that young boys ranging from 12 to 16 years have been sold into slave labour and were forced to work in cocoa farms in order to harvest the beans, from which chocolate is made, under inhumane conditions and extreme abuse. Many Ivorian kids some as young as five were made to carry heavy loads during their work in the cocoa fields. Some of the children were known to be living in poor conditions, overworked and were not even fed properly. It is a pity that in one part of the world when somebody is enjoying a bar of chocolate, a small boy might be toiling in misery in another part to generate that chocolate. Maybe everything made of cocoa should contain a tag saying “Made by child slaves!”

Today, more than 90% of Ivorian cocoa is exported to Europe and North America. The European Union is the main destination, accounting for more than 60% of exports. According to Global Witness, for the October 2005-September 2006 harvest, the five largest importers of Ivorian cocoa were Netherlands, United States, France, Estonia and Belgium.

This commodity with a broad international public appeal that brought about Côte d'Ivoire its popularity has also contributed to its downfall. This lucrative trade has been at the heart of war economy resulting in unaccountability, exploitation and political corruption. Few African economies have actually benefited from their natural resources. Many countries are still struggling to recover from the millions of deaths and displacement caused by, wars that have been fuelled from these commodities.

A lot lies in the hands of the chocolate industry; it has a responsibility to make sure that the products it sells are conflict free. Cocoa exporting companies stated that they have no control over how the Ivorians spend cocoa revenue; according to them tracing the origin of cocoa revenue is simply impossible. Instead of being a passive actor if they only took proper measures and played a positive and pro-active role and operated in a more transparent way through careful monitoring and auditing, the whole scenario could gradually change. If the companies ensured that money from the cocoa revenue is not misused or diverted to the warring factions, things would definitely improve.

It is a matter of debate as to how we as individuals or even groups can contribute to change the situation. But the least we can do is be aware and informed. Thus, the next time you happen to savour the flavour of cocoa melting in your mouth just spare a moment to figure out whether this delicious food has been made from the cocoa grown from exploitative, child labour, whether the revenue from the sale will be used to fund a war that will kill and maim thousands… Chances are that such knowledge may make us think twice about buying such products, a message that says that we will not be part of this evil.

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