OPINION: We must understand the context of cocoa farming to stop child labour in West Africa


IT is now two decades since reports of child slavery and child labour in cocoa cultivation in West Africa led to a global campaign against these practices.

Numerous initiatives to combat child labour have been launched by groups such as chocolate manufacturers through sustainability schemes, standards organisations like Fairtrade, multi-stakeholder groups such as the International Cocoa Initiative, and NGOs.

However, research suggests that child labour in cocoa farming in West Africa is still rampant. Although trafficking is difficult to study, media reports suggest that children are still being trafficked into cocoa farms in large numbers.

Several factors explain the lack of success of these programmes to combat child labour, including a lack of actual commitment on the part of chocolate manufacturers, who are pursuing other goals under the banner of fighting child labour. However, the biggest problem is that these programmes fail to understand the context of cocoa farming.

The ways in which chocolate manufacturers, standards organisations (e.g. Fairtrade), NGOs and activists theorise the causes of child labour in cocoa farming are based not on the specific context of cocoa farming, but on the general set of supply-side problems that exist in West Africa.

For example, Mondelēz International sees child labour as resulting from low incomes, a lack of infrastructure and limited awareness – a view shared by most other chocolate manufacturers. This exonerates the structure/chain of cocoa production and instead condemns the structure of producing societies.

Similarly, Fairtrade views child labour as a function of poverty, poor working conditions, insufficient governmental involvement, a lack of proper education opportunities, exploitation and discrimination, and political unrest and conflict.

These are broad issues in West Africa, not ones intrinsic to cocoa farming. However, there is enough evidence to suggest that the use of child labour (and child trafficking) is particularly common among cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire. It is vital to properly contextualise the problem with reference to the specific conditions of cocoa production in West Africa rather than merely borrowing from supply-side analysis.

Such contextualisation involves an understanding of the history of cocoa cultivation in a given locality and how the culture of cocoa farming has evolved over time, influenced by the availability of production factors and mediated by government policies.

To understand changes in labour relations in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, we must understand changes in the mediation of land (given that forestland is a production factor in cocoa farming) and labour, and how their interaction has changed over time.

Only by understanding labour relations can we understand child labour/trafficking. Programmes dedicated to combating child labour are mainly designed to change labour relations.

Analysis of the history of cocoa cultivation in several production regions in Côte d’Ivoire reveals that one rule holds true: as forestland decreases (i.e., deforestation), labour supply, which was mainly supplied by migrant labour, also decreases (because forestland is a pull factor ).

However, there is an increased need for labour to enable continued cultivation (extra labour is needed to deflate the effect of post-forest cultivation). This amounts to changes in the production cost structure (quantitative changes = higher labour costs) or/and changes in production relations (qualitative changes = cheaper labour source).

The new labour relations brought about by deforestation could mean more family labour, as economist François Ruf argued, and more child labour and child trafficking, as I have argued, depending on several factors: farm-scale, cultivation method, sources of previous labour, land tenure policy, etc.

Production factors do not interact with the above factors in a time-consistent manner in different regions within a country. Therefore, at any point in time in a given country, such as Côte d’Ivoire, there is no single form of labour relations, but different actual relations of production, as regionally specific studies have shown over and over again.

This means that a shortage and an abundance of labour may exist in a given country at the same time. The prevalence of child labour and child trafficking (as well as other problems with cocoa farming) are specific to production regions that have post-forest adjustment issues.

Discussions of child labour/trafficking in cocoa production in West Africa must at least be regionally based; this will help situate labour dynamics in specific production relations. Such a focus will reveal that some producing regions are unsuitable for continued cultivation, or at least less suitable than others. This will allow for some tailoring of programmes to meet specific regional needs.

A simple reading of the history of cocoa farming in any region – focusing on the interaction between land and labour – is the place to start.

Dr. Michael Ehis Odijie is a research fellow at the University College London, working on the AFRAB project ‘African Abolitionism: The Rise and Transformations of Anti-Slavery in Africa’.


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