December 2011: The Ten-Year Anniversary of Child Labor in Western Africa’s Cacao Belt

by Ashley Wu:

In one hand, he holds a machete longer than his own arm. Under the unrelenting eye of his supervisor, he uses it to hack open a cocoa pod and quickly picks out the cocoa beans. He is a child laborer on the Ivory Coast’s cocoa belt – and there are 1.8 million others working alongside him.

(Courtesy Fair Trade Leighton Linslade)

Cote d’Ivoire, Cameroon, Ghana, Guinea, and Nigeria together produce nearly 70 percent of the world’s cocoa. Ten years ago, reports started to surface that the cocoa beans bought by major chocolate manufacturers like Hershey’s and Nestle were being harvested by child laborers in these West African nations. Amid public outrage and pressure from the government, manufacturers signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which brought chocolate producers, labor organizations, and West African governments together in establishing a framework to guarantee labor protections.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol set a goal of eliminating child labor from the chocolate industry’s supply chain by 2005. Six years past this deadline, a recent report commissioned by the US government found that the practice of trafficking children to work on cocoa farms has “not been diminished.”

A large cause of the problem is that cocoa-producing countries are in massive competition with one another to become the region’s biggest exporter. Hershey’s, Cadbury, Nestle, and Mars are more than willing to support this competition because it drives cocoa bean prices down. The Ghana Cocoa Board, for instance, announced zealously that the nation had nearly doubled its cocoa output in one year, from 696,000 tons in 2009-‘10 to 1.1 million tons in 2010-‘11. In these countries, the quickest way to increase production is to employ more—and cheaper—labor. Child laborers, either enslaved or lured into a season of work for as little as a new bike, have filled this niche. And despite the best efforts of senators and activists, the secret of horrifying child labor practices is still largely kept under metallic chocolate bar wrappers.

Ashley Wu ’15 is in Morse College. She is a Globalist Notebook Beat Blogger on agriculture and food security issues. Contact her at