by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
world's chocolate industry has endorsed a four-year plan to eliminate child slavery in cocoa-producing nations and particularly in West Africa, where most of the world's cocoa is grown.
A six-point protocol, signed here this week by two of the world's largest chocolate producers' associations, commits them to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Labor Organization (ILO) in monitoring and remedying abusive forms of child labor used in growing and processing cocoa beans.
Two U.S. lawmakers who sponsored legislation to address child slavery in West Africa, especially in Cote d'Ivoire, brokered the accord. It also provides for a certification system so that consumers in the United States can be assured that the chocolate they buy in shops was not produced by child slaves.
"Most consumers in America and around the world don't want to buy chocolate made from cocoa beans harvested by child slaves," said Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), one of the lawmakers who helped negotiate the accord.
The protocol, which sets down a series of deadlines over the next year to lay the groundwork for a monitoring and certification system, comes amid rising concern about child trafficking worldwide, particularly in West Africa.
Some 200,000 children are transported across borders each year by smuggling rings that recruit mainly in rural areas of the region's poorest countries, including Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo, according to a 1998 report by the UN Children's Fund.
The State Department estimates that some 15,000 children between the ages of 9 and 12 work as forced labor on cocoa, coffee, and cotton farms in northern Cote d'Ivoire.
The issue, however, received little public attention until earlier this year, when British and U.S. media produced a series of investigative reports on the plight of some of these children.
Alarmed by these reports, Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel, both Democrats, sponsored legislation that appropriated funding for federal regulators to devise a mandatory "no child slavery" label for chocolate products sold in the United States.
It was passed by a margin of 291-115 in the House of Representatives last July and appeared certain to pass the Senate by a similar margin, when chocolate manufacturers, which had strongly opposed the initiative, agreed to negotiate a way to address the problem without legislation.
The negotiations included the Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA) and the World Cocoa Foundation, which represented the major chocolate manufacturers; representatives of the government of Cote d'Ivoire and the ILO; officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and other government agencies; and several NGOs that have taken an interest in the issue.
These groups included Free the Slaves, an affiliate of the London-based Anti-Slavery International; the National Consumers League; the Child Labor Coalition; and the International Union of Food and Allied Workers.
several months of talks, all parties agreed on what is now being called the Harkin-Engel Protocol.
It provides for a formal advisory group to investigate child labor practices in West Africa, and a commitment by the companies to address the problem and "identify positive development alternatives for the children" who may be affected. An independent monitoring and public reporting system is to be in place by next May and industry-wide voluntary standards of public certification are to be in place by July 1, 2005.
In addition, the companies agreed to establish and fund a joint international foundation, run by a board comprised of industry and NGO representatives, to oversee and sustain efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the growing and processing of cocoa beans and products derived from them.
"Actions like the establishment of a monitoring system and public certification represent important steps in combating these crimes," said CMA President Larry Graham.
Engel said he and Harkin would remain actively involved. He warned that if the companies fail to comply with the deadlines and commitments set out in the protocol, the legislation would be reintroduced.
Free The Slaves director Kevin Bales praised the agreement, and said its partnership approach could serve as a model for other products and countries. "If other industries acted with such social and moral responsibility, we would be much nearer to freedom for the 27 million in bondage worldwide," he said.
The companies initially denied knowledge of child slavery and insisted there was no way they could take responsibility for practices on small farms so remote from their corporate headquarters. Most chocolate manufacturers use international or domestic brokers to bid on cocoa beans and rarely have reason to travel to the countries where the cocoa is produced.
The government in Abidjan insisted that such abuses were restricted to a relatively small region in the northern part of the country and were not as widespread as suggested by the media reports. It nonetheless reacted to the reports with alarm and said it arrested a dozen traffickers and repatriated scores of children to their home countries.
Cote d'Ivoire, which produces some 43 percent of the world's cocoa beans, has a great deal at stake. Coca accounts for about one third of the country' s export earnings. Virtually all of the chocolate sold in the United States -- about $13 billion each year -- includes some cocoa from Cote d'Ivoire.
Any boycott or other consumer action against chocolate could have catastrophic economic consequences for Abidjan. Its ambassador here, Youssoufou Bamba, praised the accord, stressing that it "will complement our ongoing efforts to end instances of abuse in farming and will do so in a way that supports the many thousands of family farmers in Cote d'Ivoire who do not employ these deplorable practices."
October 8, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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