Major issues remain to ensure the cocoa sector’s future sustainability

While it’s fair to say that mainstream global news media rarely ventures into often remote seeming matters surrounding the cocoa sector and the wider confectionery industry it serves, this past week in particular, has witnessed a major spotlight being placed upon it.

Perhaps the biggest degree of attention has been reserved for the emergence of a high profile court case in the US, thought to be the first of its kind against multiple manufacturers, that has sounded a particular note of major concern.

It comes as the UN has declared 2021 as the year of eradicating child labour – the timing of which is particularly challenging, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic making monitoring of any human rights measures exceptionally difficult given the remote areas that are often in question regarding agricultural operations.

The federal lawsuit that has now started in the US is being brought on behalf of eight young men from Mali who claim to have been victims of child trafficking to Ivory Coast and forced to work on cocoa plantations, has named seven major manufacturers that included Olam, Nestle, Mars, Mondelez, Barry Callebaut, Cargill and Hershey, as defendants in the case.

It is argued that they are collectively responsible as the core players in the market, though this is entirely untested as a legal notion and as such has caught the attention of media outlets around the world.

Having spoken to these major operators on many occasions, it’s clear that the industry has definitely engaged on the issue of child labour, producing wide-ranging programmes of community support, education and financial aid over the past decade, as well as issuing zero-tolerance stances on forced labour and child trafficking within cocoa producing heartlands including Ivory Coast and Ghana that make up two thirds of the market.

But the sad fact remains, that child labour, resulting largely from wider issues of poverty, has not gone away as a key concern, as underlined by the recent NORC at the University of Chicago report that last year found that there were still 1.56 million youngsters still affected by child labour in the two west African nations.

Furthermore, it found that the issue had in fact increased since 2015, by a total of 14%, but observers have noted there has correspondingly been a significant increase in the volume of cocoa being farmed within Ghana and Ivory Coast that must be taken into consideration.

While enduring poverty is at the heart of all child labour issues, it was estimated by industry studies in 2018 that there are an estimated 30,000 forced child labourers working in west African cocoa operations, which remains a hugely troubling situation, despite laws being introduced in the region designed to combat the problem.

Even accounting for the major upshift in cocoa production, levels of progress on child labour have been challenged by human rights organisations, as well as ethically founded confectionery firms such as Tony’s Chocolonely (which itself has been subject to media scrutiny over its cocoa sourcing decisions in west Africa that have led to its removal from an ethical suppliers list (which it has argued is unwarranted).

At the heart of the matter is the fact that it is now 20 years since the signing of the Harkin-Engel protocol to which major chocolate manufacturers signed up to eradicate the worst forms of child labour from supply chains – this has undergone a series of revisions over time in the wake of its original deadline elapsing in 2005. The intervening years have seen further targets emerge, with the latest industry deadline being 2025 to make further inroads into these targets, as an understanding of the scale of the task at hand continues to evolve.

As the World Cocoa Foundation expanded, the present target four years from now aims to protect children through increasing the coverage of child labor monitoring and remediation systems to 100% by 2025, from about 20% in 2019, in their direct supply chains in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Civil organisations such as the WCF, as we have previously reported have a significant role to play in bringing about meaningful impact, as they have been doing for over a decade.

However, while the protocol’s aims are commendable, the fact that it has been a voluntary scheme has resulted in its lack of ultimate success. In the view of many industry observers, only legal enforcement of such ventures, backed by full due diligence of remediation measures being carried out by governments, civil society and industry, can this situation hope to be resolved to its fullest extent.

There is definitely a strong weight of policy and effort on the part of industry, but this now needs to be taken to the next level in order for the industry to survive for the sake of future generations who rely on the income of cocoa as an essential element of their economies.

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