The idea that vast swathes children are being enslaved and forced to work 16-hour days in Ivorian cocoa fields makes for dramatic story. Except that it's not true.
Sikensi - In March 2012, the European Parliament renewed the International Cocoa Agreement and approved a resolution aimed at, amongst other things, eradicating forced child labour in cocoa production. This is no doubt a noble cause - forced labour is a dire violation of human rights and dignity - but when it comes to the Ivory Coast, it's also a very easy one: forced child labour in Ivorian cocoa fields is virtually non-existent.
Cocoa is crucial to the Ivory Coast's economy and is mainly grown around the deep green and undulating lands in the south, centre and west of the country. These areas help the country produce around 40% of the world's entire cocoa supply, and the crop is responsible for 15% of the Ivory Coast's GDP, 20% of its tax revenue, and 35% of its exports.
Ivorian cocoa typically ends up at ports like Amsterdam - the biggest cocoa harbour in the world - but it starts its journey starts on thousands of tiny plantations. At one of these in Sikensi, 100 miles northeast of Abidjan, I found farmers and their children working side-by-side on a small but lush multi-purpose enterprise.
Yao, the fifty-something owner, happily explains that he had always grown a diversity of crops on his farm - "If one cash crop fails, I have income from another; if one food crop fails, we can eat another" - but the atmosphere changes abruptly when we want to take some photographs. Everyone who looks underage is chased off the field.
The incessant reporting about child slaves has made the villagers wary. Child labour has been a staple of Western campaigners in recent years. In late 2012, for example, this website published an article citing estimates that some 1.8 million child labourers are working in Ghana and the Ivory Coast as well as a US Department of State guesstimate that over 100,000 children are working under "the worst forms of child labour" on Ivorian farms. Meanwhile the Dutch journalist-turned-activist-turned-ethical-chocolatier Teun van de Keuken has claimed there are 460,000 people "working in conditions that have been declared illegal" in West Africa.
Figures citing hundreds of thousands of child slaves make for sensations headlines, but they don't chime with the reality experienced by farmers such as Yao. "I am sending my children to school and they are also learning the trade exactly the same way as I did: from my parents," he says. "If you have a better idea as to how you can take experience from one generation to the next, I'd like to hear about it."
From Caistab to chaos
The Ivory Coast's cocoa industry is wrought with problems, most of which can be traced back to its hasty, ill-considered and poorly executed liberalisation in the late 1990s. Before then, the industry had been regulated by the Caisse de stabilisation et de soutien des prix des productions agricoles, more commonly known as Caistab.
Caistab was a state agency that offered farmers a guaranteed market at set prices. The organisation facilitated the buying and selling of the crop and removed many of the risks and uncertainties associated with cocoa farming. However, Caistab also worked to siphon illicit extra funds into the pockets of the ruling party and its leader Félix Houphouët-Boigny.
It was partly this corruption that led the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to call for its abolition, and as cocoa prices continued to drop through the 1980s and 1990s, the Ivory Coast eventually acceded to its wishes.
Liberalising the industry, however, proved to be a hugely problematic. And even today, Edouard N'Guessan, who went on to become a director of New Caistab (Caistab's successor) and was present at the negotiations, wrote a book in which he assessed the results of liberalisation. His verdict: negative. Even more devastating is the view of an economist who also took part in negotiations and spoke on the condition of anonymity. To this day, he is still furious at what he sees as the callous indifference of the IMF and World Bank and at the rashness with which the crucial industry was restructured. "I told those World Bank and IMF people that they were going too fast and that this would end in absolute disaster, and it has," he says.
Indeed, the cocoa industry disintegrated into a large number of cooperatives and private operators; government oversight and management of the sector lost its coherence as it fractured into various smaller bodies; and a few large multinational buyers were able to use their financial leverage to muscle in on the hitherto protected market and gain a stranglehold on exports.
The big losers were farmer like Yao for whom prices plummeted to the point that growing and selling cocoa sometimes cost them money. Furthermore, the new system hardly rooted out opportunities for corruption. In fact, one could argue that it deepened and intensified it, with vast amounts of embezzled cocoa revenues being used to fund the country's civil war in the mid-2000s.
"With Caistab we had to support a director, his family, his home, his car, his mistress and so on," says one of Yao's fellow farmers from Sikensi. "With the new system in place, we've got to support four of five of these."
Meanwhile journalists trying to expose the rot in the system have - at best - been intimidated into dropping their enquiries. In April 2004, Guy-André Kieffer, a French-Canadian journalist researching the industry disappeared, while several Ivorian journalists investigating the sector have reportedly received death threats.
Myth and reality
As we can see, there is no shortage of problems within the Ivory Coast's cocoa industry. But despite the headlines, child slavery doesn't seem to be one of them.
Indeed, in a 2013 background paper on forced labour and trafficking in Africa, the International Labour Organisation explained that "there are many clear examples where the assumption of forced labour has proved wrong. This is especially the case with cocoa production." The paper cites a range of studies that have disproven the idea of large numbers of child slaves and of widespread exploitation in West African cocoa fields, concluding that "an absence of good quality, accurate, empirical data has allowed for the perpetuation of sensationalist and often misplaced claims."
Returning to the sector's real problems, there has been some notable progress in recent years. With the worst of the country's political crisis has subsided for now, the economy is reportedly recording nearly double-digit growth figures, while the government of President Alassana Ouattara has abandoned the messy system that succeeded Caistab and re-instated a guaranteed basic price for cocoa. It is somewhat ironic that it is the exact same forces that created the chaos of liberalisation that are now trying to undo it; the recent reforms have once again been come amidst pressure from the IMF and World Bank, while Ouattara himself is a former IMF deputy director and as prime minister (1990-1993) was one of the main figures behind the country's market liberation.
However, many problems remain. With cocoa prices differing between neighbouring producers, particularly Ivory Coast and Ghana, many exporters try to get higher profits by smuggling crops across the border. The amount smuggled can be as high as hundreds of thousands of tonnes each year, leading to significant losses in tax revenues for the Ivorian or Ghanaian governments. Furthermore, corruption at all levels is still rife and many farmers claim they are still extorted, over-taxed and short-changed by the current system.
The idea that millions of young children are being trafficked, enslaved, and forced to work 16-hour days in dire conditions makes for dramatic and emotive story, and one that campaigners can easily rally around. The concept of inequitable state pricing, misguided economic policies and distorted value chains makes for a much less rousing tale. However, while the former is thankfully a myth, it is the latter that is all too real.
Bram Posthumus is an independent press and radio journalist with more than 20 years of experience living and working in West and Southern Africa. Alternating between Dakar and Amsterdam, he reports on political, cultural and economic events for a variety of radio, print and internet media. His book on the history and politics of Guinea will be published shortly by Hurst & Co.