Clarisse Bassole was only 13 years old when her uncle dropped her off at a cocoa bean plantation in the middle of the rainforest in West Africa’s Ivory Coast. For three years, she was forced by local farmers to cultivate a fruit that is coveted by billions of Western consumers while sleeping in makeshift tents amid awful living conditions.
“I slept on the floor every night, and in the morning I would pick cocoa,” she told New Lines. “It was hard work and I felt completely alone.”
In 2019, Clarisse was trafficked about 150 miles from her home in Oume, in the south of Ivory Coast, to a town to the northwest named Vavoua. She was eventually rescued by the police when she was reported missing by her sister.
Ivory Coast is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, responsible for some 45% of global production. Nearly 6 million people, about a fifth of the population, work in the cocoa sector as part of the global chocolate industry. Authorities say that, of those, more than 800,000 are children. Many, like Clarisse, have been trafficked hundreds of miles away from their homes, even from beyond Ivory Coast’s borders.
A small number of children in the industry work on large plantations, which are operated by international companies. Yet most work on small plots of land, alongside independent smallholder farmers who grow cocoa and sell it to local cooperatives, who act as middlemen with foreign buyers. Child labor issues have been well documented in cases in which chocolate companies buy raw cocoa directly and are determined to be plainly responsible, but elsewhere the problem appears more complex — entwined with cultural attitudes and the nature of work in a low-income, agricultural economy.
For the lucky ones like Clarisse who have escaped or been rescued, the government has built three rescue centers across Ivory Coast — one element of wider efforts to stamp out child labor. Now 17, Clarisse is at the Welcome Center for Children in Soubre (CAES) — a rehabilitation center in a southwestern town in the heart of the cocoa region. As part of their rehabilitation, the girls are encouraged to learn a skill such as tailoring, while the boys are encouraged to learn carpentry.
“It’s too late for me to return to school,” sighs Clarisse as she sews a dress. “I will focus instead on making clothes. I want to become a designer.”
She was sent to the plantation because her uncle could not afford to pay her school fees and both her parents are dead. The center, which houses about 70 minors, has a full-time psychologist on hand to offer therapy for the children who suffered abuse during their time in the bush.
“We created these centers to help children in extreme vulnerability,” says Martin N’Guettia, director of the National Committee for Monitoring Actions to Combat Trafficking, Exploitation and Child Labor (CNS), a government body. “When they come to us, we find they are in a traumatized state and they need to be helped.”
Along with building halfway houses for child laborers, the government has created an elite unit of soldiers to track down and arrest adults who are forcing children to work. Less than a mile away from where Clarisse sits in a classroom, the military has set up a blockade on the highway that heads north from Soubre. Each of the buses, many packed with travelers, is flagged down by the police and checked for children who might be working in the cocoa fields.
“We ask all the adults questions about the children they are with,” says Thierry Gnayo, a member of a special police brigade working to crack down on child labor. “If we catch them with children who are not their kids, we arrest them and take them to the station.”
On this occasion, one of the white buses has 16 adults and only two children, both of whom are with their parents. After Gnayo quickly checks several national ID cards, he waves the bus on and flags down the next people carrier. “You would be surprised how many kids are not with their parents or guardians,” he says, between furious blasts on a traffic whistle.
In November, a similar checkpoint on the road between Akoupe and Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s economic capital, led to the arrest of four traffickers traveling by bus with nine children aged 12 to 18. The men reportedly came from Togo and had no documents to show that the children were related to them. They are currently awaiting their prison sentences.
The brigade also stages regular raids into cocoa plantations across the country, to track down child laborers and possible traffickers. Zaka Luc, commander of the Subdirectorate of the Criminal Police in Charge of the Fight Against Child Trafficking and Juvenile Delinquency (SDLTEDJ), says that his brigade arrested 24 people in Soubre last year, during a raid involving over 100 security officials.
“It lasted for two days,” he says. “We had four teams, which spread out into four different plantations. When the children saw us, they ran away because they didn’t know that we were there to help them.”
The government-funded brigade is based in Abidjan, where it meticulously plans each raid into the cocoa fields. The commander says that he identified Soubre as a target because productivity had surged in the region — which can often mean that children and adults are both at work. He added that a “network of informers” gave him tipoffs that minors were in the fields. A total of 68 children were rescued and either returned to their families or sent to the welcome center in Soubre. Of those who were arrested, two were freed, 17 were sentenced to five years in prison and five were sentenced to 20 years.
Luc says that adults who had trafficked children from neighboring West African countries to work on the plantations received the harshest sentences. He adds that more children are pouring over the borders due to a brutal Islamist insurgency which has engulfed large parts of the Sahel region. Several of the rescued children hailed from Burkina Faso, Mali and also neighboring Guinea. Luc describes the borders as “extremely porous” — creating a huge problem for Ivoirian security forces, who struggle to keep jihadists and human traffickers at bay. “We need more vehicles, more resources and for the borders to be modernized,” he says. “We also need to work in collaboration with other countries so that we can crack down on these criminals.”
Mali and Burkina Faso are in the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU), a regional bloc that allows the free movement of people between eight countries: Benin, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo. The open borders allow thousands of regional migrants to flock to Ivory Coast to pick cocoa beans during the main harvest season from October to March and a smaller harvest in April. N’Guettia, the director of CNS, says the wide variety of people crossing the border into Ivory Coast makes it extremely difficult to identify traffickers and children being trafficked.
“When there are jihadist attacks in the Sahel there is a huge migration of people who cross the borders into Ivory Coast,” he says. “But we don’t have the numbers; we can’t tell the difference between trafficking and refugees.”
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the U.N.’s refugee agency, estimates that more than 7,000 people fled from Burkina Faso to Ivory Coast in 2021 because of an escalation of violence by Islamist fighters. The number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) grew by 50% in 2021, to 1.5 million, making Burkina Faso one of the countries with the most IDPs in Africa.
Yet despite an increase in trafficking, the majority of children who are working in Ivory Coast’s cocoa fields are working with their families. Child labor is common in many developing countries, but in certain forms it is not always viewed as a serious act of exploitation. Children will help their families to sell goods at the market or cultivate crops. This presents an even trickier problem for authorities that are faced with entrenched social norms rather than simply criminal entities.
“Most of the time these kids are with their family but their parents do not realize that it is illegal for children to work in the fields,” N’Guettia says. “It is normal for them. Ivory Coast is an agricultural country and children have always helped their parents cultivate crops.”
The practice is a criminal offense in most countries, including Ivory Coast, which passed a law in 2010 that prohibited child trafficking and the worst forms of child labor. Yet according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), more than 60% of Africa’s population works in agriculture, and children are often also involved. The U.N. agency found that agriculture accounts for 85% of child labor on the continent — more than 61 million children.
The Ivoirian government has established over 3,000 committees in villages across the country to raise awareness in rural communities and influence cultural approaches to the issue. The CNS and other organizations use regular sessions to promote the idea that children should not be working in the fields, even if they are there only to help their families.
In Gripazo, a small cocoa-farming village north of Soubre, villagers gather in the community hall to discuss their children’s futures. Lobou Doudou Honore, the chief of the village, says that while nearly all the adults in the community grew up as cocoa farmers, none of their children are currently working in the fields.
“They all go to school,” he says.
Whether parents can afford to send their children to school remains a key factor behind whether kids end up harvesting cocoa. Some families will send only one or two children to school and the rest into the fields to work, to support the household income. Though the government has set an ambitious target of free education up until age 16, in reality most parents will still have to pay for their child to attend school, as the policy takes time to go into effect.
The community is also kept up to date with the government’s latest decisions on what kinds of tasks children can do and what is not appropriate. In 2017, the government enacted a law that detailed a list of hazardous jobs, as well as work that is authorized for children between 13 and 16, which they can do when not in class. Dangerous work that involves using sharp objects like machetes is prohibited, while less dangerous tools are allowed. The law reflects the understanding that Ivory Coast is a predominantly agricultural society and children should be allowed to help out in the fields during their spare time, without their parents risking jail sentences.
“Some of the kids will help their parents out after they have finished with school. It’s quite normal” says Honore.
Kobenan Adjoumani Kouassi, Ivory Coast’s agriculture minister, says that many of the international child labor standards are created in Western capitals and do not take into account the realities on the ground in developing countries. He tells New Lines that he grew up in a rural community and would regularly help his parents in the fields, learning to plant cocoa and cassava. He turns the spotlight on the developed world and argues that sending children to creches (nurseries) is much worse than children who help their parents on farms.
“A child of 2 years old needs its mother,” he says. “But in Europe some of these babies are taken away and put in a creche under the pretense that it is good for the child. That is not normal. It’s an even worse form of child suffering and it needs to stop, but no one denounces this practice.” The minister says that, in reality, about 90% of child labor in Ivory Coast is children working with their parents and only 10% are children like Clarisse who have been forcibly abandoned, trafficked and made to work.
Another way that child labor is being slowly eradicated in Ivory Coast is through wider efforts in the multibillion-dollar global chocolate industry. Most of the chocolate companies that source cocoa beans from Ivory Coast conform to standards like the Fairtrade certification, which prohibits child labor as defined by the ILO. These certifications are used to provide Western consumers with the assurance that well-known chocolate brands do not buy cocoa that is farmed by children.
Over the years, many of the companies have gone further than these standards to introduce their own programs aimed at helping the poor communities that farm cocoa. Hershey’s, for example, which buys cocoa from Ivory Coast, launched its Cocoa For Good strategy in 2018, investing $500 million in programs to end child labor, boost incomes and increase sustainability.
Yet many argue that international chocolate companies have not gone far enough. It has now been over 20 years since the chocolate industry promised in 2001 to end child labor on Ivory Coast’s cocoa plantations. The original plan was to end the practice by 2005, but the deadline has been repeatedly pushed back as the industry drags its heels. Several high-profile investigations have revealed that child labor is still widespread in Ivory Coast’s cocoa sector and in other cocoa-producing countries.
In 2021, eight former child slaves filed a lawsuit against the world’s largest chocolate companies, claiming they had been forced to work without pay. The children accused Nestle, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Olam, Hershey’s and Mondelez of “knowingly profiting” from the illegal work of children. The plaintiffs allege that they were recruited in Mali through trickery and deception, before being trafficked across the border to cocoa farms in Ivory Coast, where they were forced to work for several years.
Kouassi, the agriculture minister, says that chocolate companies are also increasing the likelihood of child labor in Ivory Coast by continuing to push back against paying farmers a fair price for cocoa. In 2020, Ivory Coast and Ghana introduced a $400 premium on every ton of cocoa purchased by chocolate companies, called the Living Income Differential (LID). Its purpose was to raise the price of cocoa, which has been falling steadily since the 1970s, and to put more money into the hands of farmers. However, the minister says that many of these international companies have found ways to avoid the premiums, depriving farmers of a fair living wage. If they paid this premium and further supported the livelihoods of poor farmers, the children would not be as likely to work in the fields.
“If you pay farmers well then you will see a reduction in all associated dangers with cacao farming like deforestation and child labor. Farmers cut down forests illegally to plant more cacao trees and bring in children to work, precisely because they are paid hardly anything for their labor.”
Back at the welcome center, away from the larger issues surrounding cocoa, Clarisse is worried about her future without any parents or a formal education. Forcing a smile, she remains optimistic and is thankful she escaped her traumatic time in the bush.
“I am just glad that I got out of the cocoa fields,” she says.
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