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Did Child Slaves Harvest Your Latest Chocolate Treat?

By Kyle Scheihagen  Posted by Rob Kall (about the submitter)     Permalink
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Slavery has a long history in Africa, but tragically, it also has a present. Five years ago, the BBC documented child slavery on Cote d 'Ivoire cocoa farms, causing a public relations nightmare for the chocolate industry. Cote d 'Ivoire farms produce nearly half the world 's cocoa, most of which is used by major corporations like Hershey, M&M/Mars, and Nestle.

By 2001, continued media scrutiny led Congress to get involved. The House of Representatives passed a measure by Representative Eliot Engel and Senator Tom Harkin that would have mandated a federal system to stop the sale of slave-produced chocolate in the US. As Engel said, "if we can have our tuna fish dolphin-free, we can have our chocolate slave-free. " Fearing the effects of such a system on its bottom line, however, the industry hired former senators George Mitchell and Bob Dole to lobby against the bill. They succeeded in stopping it, but had to accept a compromise.

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Under the Harkin-Engel Protocol, the chocolate industry committed to ending child slavery in its supply chain by July 1st, 2005 last Friday. But instead of being an occasion for celebration, the day marked an abominable failure that will mean continued suffering for thousands of children.

In a joint statement with Harkin and Engel, the industry admitted that the "deadline will not be fully met ... [but] assured Sen. Harkin and Rep. Engel that it is fully committed to achieving a certification system, which ... will cover 50% of the cocoa growing areas of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana within three years. " For their part, the congressmen claimed to be "disappointed that the original deadline was not fully met, " but, "comfortable that the industry is commited to moving forward. "

Well, frankly, I am disappointed in Harkin and Engel. Their Protocol gave consumers the impression that the problem was being solved, and now they want to extend that illusion. After four years four years the industry has broken its promise to stop using child slavery entirely, and has instead "committed " to ending it in half of two countries within three more years. And yet Harkin and Engel tell us they are "assured that progress will be made and deadlines will be met. " Either they are fools, or think we are.

As for the industry itself, there is little I can say in polite company. They are profiting from slavery. They have lied about stopping. In this latest statement, they pledged a mere $5 million annually to end the slavery they exploit, while in the US alone, they sell $13 *billion* dollars of chocolate a year. Clearly, they would rather protect profits than children.

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And so, the ball is back in our court the court of consumer opinion. Most of us love chocolate, but few would knowingly support slavery. Yet that is exactly what we do if we eat slave-farmed cocoa. As Salia Kante, director of the Save the Children Fund in Mali, put it: "People who are drinking cocoa and eating chocolate are drinking and eating the blood of children." As Americans celebrated freedom last weekend, American companies and consumers were keeping African children in bondage.

But there is an alternative: Fair Trade chocolate. Under the Fair Trade system, yearly inspections certify farms as slavery free and guarantee them a fair price for their beans. The chocolate costs a bit more, but poverty is at the root of chocolate slavery, and fairer prices are the key to ending both. Buy Fair Trade, and you send a message to slave-supporting chocolate makers that you 'd rather pay more than hurt children. At the same time, send other messages letters, emails, and phone calls to the companies, your congressmen, and friends, telling them how you feel about slavery in chocolate.

Changing the status quo isn 't easy action is necessary. The forces arrayed against change are powerful and patient. They can wait out efforts like Live 8 just like they waited out the Harkin-Engel Protocol. They will not be stopped by a day 's worth of good intentions. They can be defeated, yes, but it will take constant and careful effort. That is the true price of ending poverty and slavery, and it must be a price we are willing to pay.

Kyle Scheihagen lives in San Diego and is involved in psychiatric research
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