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A Guilty Pleasure: The Global Chocolate Economy and the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire
The global cocoa trade, of which Côte d’Ivoire supplies 35-40% each year, casts a long shadow over both Côte d’Ivoire’s decade-long crisis and the fragile prosperity that preceded it, and can be tied to human rights violations that were endemic both before and during the conflict.

The link between the Western love of chocolate and the ongoing crisis in Côte d’Ivoire is not sufficiently noted by the major media. In 2010, a long-delayed election aimed at reconciling this divided country went badly for the incumbent President, Laurent Gbagbo. The country has since been in the grip of a tense stand-off reportedly causing over 250 deaths, as African leaders attempt to broker a transfer of power in favour of Gbagbo’s internationally-backed rival, Alassane Ouattara. A return to the war that divided the country in 2002 has so far been avoided, but tensions remain high and the outcome uncertain.

The global cocoa trade casts a long shadow over both the decade-long crisis and the fragile prosperity that preceded it in Côte d’Ivoire, and can be tied to human rights violations that were endemic both before and during the conflict. This analysis first provides background on the politics of Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa industry, second looks at forced child labour in cocoa production and third notes the links between cocoa revenues and the conflict that continues to divide the country.


Côte d’Ivoire is the backbone of the global cocoa trade, supplying 35-40% of the world’s cocoa in a given year (the next largest supplier is neighbouring Ghana, which provides around 20%). For over 30 years, the beans have been by far the largest source of Côte d’Ivoire’s export earnings, driving an economy that now sustains some 20 million people. The history is covered in Dwayne Woods, “The Tragedy of the Cocoa Pod: Rent-Seeking, Land and Ethnic Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire,” (2003) 41 Journal of Modern African Studies 641, as well as in several chapters of Carol Off, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet (2006).
Cocoa has been the engine of Côte d’Ivoire’s development since its mass cultivation was first encouraged by French colonial administrators. By the 1950s the producers had organized themselves into an influential growers’ union. Its leader, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, became the first African ever elected to the French National Assembly, the first African member of the French cabinet and then, in 1960, the founding President of an independent Côte d’Ivoire. For over three decades, cocoa was the economic and political foundation of his rule. Houphouët-Boigny made land in the forest-belt available to those that would cultivate it. Workers from the Muslim north and from neighbouring countries answered his call, ambitiously replacing rainforest with cocoa trees. For those from the more privileged Christian and animist south, expanding cocoa revenues opened up jobs in the bureaucracy and service sector. In this way the regime of ‘le Vieux,’ and the nation itself, were built on the support of northerners, newcomers (who soon comprised a quarter of the population by some counts) and southerners alike. Earnings sent back to Burkina Faso, Mali and other neighbouring countries made Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa miracle an important source of income for the whole sub-region.
The economic success of Côte d’Ivoire was built entirely on a strategy of depletion, however. Clearing forests in order to access new soil for cocoa cultivation in this way should have been no more than a transition strategy, a way of earning revenue to invest into developing the human and industrial capital needed for more lasting prosperity. But this reality was neglected by Houphouët-Boigny and his international partners, who touted his regime as a model for Africa. As international cocoa prices plummeted in the 1980s, Côte d’Ivoire’s expanding debt pushed it into a program of liberalization and foreign takeovers prescribed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. In the cities, increasing unemployment bred new malaise while in the country, new forest for clearing became harder to find, driving up production costs.

Houphouët-Boigny, by now an old man, saw his country through the initial phase of the crisis, but died without naming a successor in 1993. His last Prime Minister, the same Alassane Ouattara who is now recognized internationally as president-elect, lost out to National Assembly leader Henri Konan Bédié in the ensuing struggle for the presidency. Bédié oversaw the turn from a politics of inclusion to one of resentment, in which southerners were incited to see those from the north and from neighbouring countries as the source of their country’s woes. Bédié manipulated the laws and the courts to keep Ouattara out of the presidential contest in 1995, but also alienated the military, which launched a coup in 1999. Elections were organized under the presiding General Gueï, but Outtara and Bédié were both excluded. The minor candidate Laurent Gbagbo was allowed to run against Gueï. To the General’s great consternation, Gbagbo won, and has governed the country with open disdain for democracy since 2000. Paul Collier describes well how Gbagbo’s awareness of his slim chances of winning an election have shaped events during his presidency in War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places (Harper Collins, 2009), at 155ff.

Thousands of children are alleged to labour under duress in the cocoa plantations of present-day Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. While most child labour in West African agriculture does not amount to what human rights law seeks to eradicate as ‘contemporary forms of slavery’ or ‘slavery-like practices,’ reports have repeatedly surfaced about children (typically boys in their early teens) who are smuggled across the porous frontier of Mali in particular into Côte d’Ivoire and sold to cash-strapped cocoa growers. Working for little or no pay, they are often poorly fed and housed, subjected to abuse, receive no education and face hazardous work like carrying heavy loads, spraying pesticides unprotected or handling machetes. Their treatment has frequently been characterized as what international law forbids as ‘the worst forms of child labour.’ This situation is said to have worsened as forest-clearing became increasingly untenable as a way of accessing new soil, as growers were confronted with higher costs to counter soil depletion, prevent tree diseases or nurture less productive older trees. At the same time, growers’ income has been squeezed by corruption, liberalizing ‘reforms’ and depressed prices that lasted through the 1990s and into the early years of the new millennium. The resulting pressure to reduce the only cost over which they had any control – that of labour – created the conditions that human traffickers needed to make a profit.
When the media first caught wind of a scandal, Senator Tom Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel (both democrats) responded by shepherding a legislative amendment through Congress in 2001. By supporting what became known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, industry agreed to certify that chocolate had been produced without the ‘worst forms of child labour’ by 1 July 2005. The promised certification scheme has never been established. After moving the goalposts several times, participants agreed in September 2010 that by 2020 they would seek to reduce the worst forms of child labour in the cocoa supply chain by 70%: see the Framework of Action to Support Implementation of the Harkin-Engel Protocol
Even before this latest deferral, the Protocol was viewed by many as a failure. The US Department of Labour engaged the Payson Center at Tulane University to look into the Protocol’s implementation, and the Center’s careful 2010 report reveals some damning information. To give one example, it found that partners implementing the Protocol on the ground in Côte d’Ivoire had received only $1.2 million between 2001 and 2009 – a mere pittance when compared to the over $2.7 billion in Ivoirian cocoa exported in 2009 alone. Industry, moreover, foresees no product certification at all as part of the Protocol’s fulfillment – no verifiable assurance for consumers that the chocolate they buy is ‘child slavery free.’ Instead, it sees the Protocol’s commitment to certifiable elimination of the worst child labour as a commitment to “continual improvement” in data-collection and other efforts in collaboration with governments. Industry calls this “public certification,” but the Tulane report criticizes this, as do activists who see it as tantamount to a revision of the Protocol.

Whatever changes might be wrought in the sector through long-term economic development, it is hard to see how the worst forms of child labour can be eliminated in the short term without the incentive of a solid product-certification commitment on the part of industry. Such certification has been shown to work, for example, in the case of Green and Black’s (a premium UK chocolate), whose ‘fair trade’ buying practices have helped Mayan communities in Belize increase their children’s school attendance. Still, some positive results have emerged outside of the Protocol. With industry support, The Netherlands recently committed to having a fully sustainable chocolate supply chain by 2025. Independently of this, industry majors Mars, Nestlé, Kraft (which now includes Cadbury) and Cargill have all committed to increasing their use of certified cocoa, although companies vary with respect to the volumes and timelines involved (see Tulane Report).

Gbagbo’s antagonism of northerners and of the military provoked a rebellion in 2002. The rebels were turned back before they took control of the government, but the country was divided in two. Gbagbo held the south, while the Forces Nouvelles (“New Forces”) held the north, with the French and then the UN supplying personnel to patrol the buffer-zone between. In 2007, a timetable for elections was adopted, but both sides repeatedly found reasons for delay. The conflict and the paralysis that followed it brought abductions, arbitrary killings, rape, recruitment of child soldiers and massive corruption on both sides (see Fifth Progress Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Operations in Côte d’Ivoire, 17 June 2005, paras. 40-46). The UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo and ‘targeted’ sanctions on the country, including a ban on the export of rough diamonds, but enforcement of these is said to have been uneven and their impact limited.
Neither the division of Côte d’Ivoire nor the UN sanctions did anything to affect its position as the world’s leading cocoa supplier. On the contrary, cocoa income gave government and rebels alike the resources needed to delay reconciliation. The rebels managed to hold only about 10% of the cocoa belt in the end, but Côte d’Ivoire’s importance in the global market is such that the rebel-held north by itself constitutes the world’s seventh-largest source of cocoa. This made the commodity a key source of financial support. ‘Taxes’ extorted from growers, on the roads and at the warehouses allowed Forces Nouvelles commanders to buy arms, which in turn allowed them to maintain the feudal-style ‘warlord economy’ under which civilians are said to live in the north.

As for the government, by holding the south in 2002 it was able to retain control over the vast bulk of Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa and other agricultural lands as well as the national port facilities and offshore petroleum reserves. Re-taking the north was not an economic imperative. As long as others were willing to supply arms in spite of the Security Council embargo, there was no compelling need to negotiate with the rebels. In such a situation, neither the rebels nor the government felt compelled to reunite the country. The dynamics of this perverse economy - not so much fuelling war as blocking peace – are carefully documented by Global Witness in its 2007 report, Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa Fuelled the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire, as well as in the reports of the expert panel charged by the Security Council with examining compliance with the Côte d’Ivoire sanctions regime, and in particular its 2009 final report (pp.51-58). Global Witness, the Expert Panel and Carol Off all provide accounts of the corruption and cronyism characterizing the regulatory bodies put in place by Gbagbo in a supposed ‘market-friendly’ reform of the cocoa sector. Outside donor pressure ultimately led Gbagbo’s government to arrest 23 senior members of this network on fraud and embezzlement charges in 2008, but trials are yet to take place. Gbagbo also set up a single management committee to regulate the cocoa sector, but these reforms have also been criticized as doing little to foster real accountability.
Most recently, in the standoff following the recent presidential elections, the beleaguered administration of Laurent Gbagbo is reportedly drawing on cocoa revenues as other sources of financing are cut off by the international community. In response, Ouattara has recently called for a one-month ban on chocolate exports, which the US State Department and US agro-industry major Cargill have both supported. With the livelihoods of millions of farming families and agricultural workers at stake, a cocoa embargo has always been a drastic proposition. At the same time, some feel that Gbagbo could survive indefinitely on resources he is squeezing out of the cocoa and petroleum sectors if his funds are not cut off. Without such resources, he would clearly be unable to pay his military and civil servants for long. One suggestion has been for an international naval operation to cut Gbagbo off from Côte d’Ivoire’s entirely off-shore oil production, thus choking his income while leaving cocoa producers untouched (oil surpassed cocoa as a source of Ivoirian export revenues for the first – and so far only – time in 2006). But Western eagerness to avoid accusations of neo-colonial interference makes unilateral action unlikely, while Security Council approval for such a move is unlikely (see discussion by Security Council Report of the lead-up to the most recent resolution).
While the outcome of Côte d’Ivoire’s latest crisis remains uncertain, Gbagbo seems doomed to relent and cede office eventually. Ouattara – a Muslim northerner who avoids playing the identity card – is invested with hopes that he will help renew the sense of shared commitment that marked Côte d’Ivoire for so long. The rainforests that once covered three-quarters of the country are all but gone, and Côte d’Ivoire will inevitably have to spend more for each bag of cocoa it produces. Apart from this, its share of the global cocoa market seems destined to shrink as Indonesia, Malaysia and other producers come on-line. The bright side of this sombre picture is that there will be no return to the cocoa-dependant past. 


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