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Our planet

A number of human rights and sustainability issues exist which relate to the chocolate market. These issues include child slavery which is prevalent in West African cocoa growing countries, cocoa industry lags in adopting fair trade and deforestation from palm oil production.  

Cocoa and child slavery

The first allegations that child slavery is used in cocoa production appeared in 1998. In late 2000 a BBC documentary reported the use of enslaved children in West African cocoa production. Other media followed by reporting widespread child slavery and child trafficking in cocoa production. Child labour was growing in some West African countries in 2008-09 when it was estimated that 819,921 children worked on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast alone; by 2013-14 the number grew to 1,303,009. During the same period in Ghana, the estimated number of children working on cocoa farms was 957,398 children.

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The cocoa industry was accused of profiting from child slavery and trafficking. The Harkin–Engel Protocol is an effort to end these practices. It was signed and witnessed by the heads of eight major chocolate companies, US Senators Tom Harkin and Herb Kohl, US Representative Eliot Engel, the Ivory Coast ambassador, the Director of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor and others. It has, however, been criticised by some groups, including the International Labor Rights Forum, as an industry initiative which falls short.

As of 2017, approximately 2.1 million children in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire were involved in harvesting cocoa, carrying heavy loads, clearing forests and being exposed to pesticides. According to Sona Ebai, the former Secretary General of the Alliance of Cocoa Producing Countries: ‘I think child labor cannot be just the responsibility of industry to solve. I think it's the proverbial all-hands-on-deck: government, civil society, the private sector. And there, you really need leadership.’

Reported in 2018, a three-year pilot program conducted by Nestlé with 26,000 farmers mostly located in Côte d'Ivoire, observed a 51 per cent decrease in the number of children doing hazardous jobs in cocoa farming. The US Department of Labor formed the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group as a public-private partnership with the governments of Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire to address child labour practices in the cocoa industry.

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On April 10, 2020 Reuters published ‘Child labour still prevalent in West Africa cocoa sector despite industry efforts’. The article indicated, while the draft of a report funded by the US Department of Labor is yet to be finalised, reducing child labour is falling short of the targets set in 2010 when companies including Mars, Hershey, Nestle and Cargill pledged to reduce the worst forms of child labour in their West African supply chains by 70 per cent by 2020. The report found the proportion of children from families working in the cocoa sector that are engaged in child labour increased to 46 per cent in the 2018/19 season from 44 per cent when the last survey was conducted in 2013/14. The proportion engaged in hazardous labour, such as using sharp tools, stayed steady at 42 per cent. The report estimated that approximately 2.1 million children in the two countries’ cocoa sectors are engaged in child labour which includes work by under 12s and by older children that is hazardous or exceeds a certain number of hours. This is unchanged from the 2016 report of Brian O’Keefe. Reuters noted the Ghana cocoa regulator Cocobod spokesman Fifi Boafo rejected the report’s findings.

 

Palm oil & deforestation

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Palm oil is cheaper than cocoa butter and is used as a substitute in some chocolate. Check the label!

The use of palm oil in food products has attracted the concern of environmental activist groups; the high oil yield of the trees has encouraged wider cultivation, leading to the clearing of forests in parts of Indonesia to make space for oil palm monoculture. This has resulted in significant natural habitat acreage losses of the three surviving orangutan species. One species in particular, the Sumatran orangutan, has been listed as critically endangered.

Oil palm use is identified as far back as 5,000 years. In the late 1800s, in a tomb at Abydos dating back to 3000 BCE, archaeologists discovered a  substance they concluded was originally palm oil. It is believed traders brought oil palm to Egypt. Palm oil from E. guineensis has long been recognised in West and Central African countries: European merchants trading with West Africa purchased palm oil for use as a cooking oil in Europe and palm oil became a highly sought after commodity by British traders for use as an industrial lubricant for machinery during Britain's Industrial Revolution. Palm oil formed the basis of soap products, such as Lever Brothers' (now UnileverSunlight soap and the American Palmolive brand. Palm oil was overtaken by cocoa in the 1880s with the introduction of colonial European cocoa plantations.

The highly saturated nature of palm oil renders it solid at room temperature in temperate regions making it a cheap substitute for butter or hydrogenated vegetable oils in uses where solid fat is desirable, such as pastry dough and baked goods production. The health concerns related to trans fats in hydrogenated vegetable oils may have contributed to the increasing use of palm oil  in the food industry.

Indonesia is the world's largest producer of palm oil, surpassing Malaysia in 2006, producing more than 20.9 million tonnes, a number that has since risen to over 34.5 million tons (2016 output). Indonesia expects to double production by the end of 2030.

Sources
BBC
End Slavery Now
International Labour Organisation
Wikipedia
Ange Aboa & Aaron Ross, ‘Child labour still prevalent in West Africa cocoa sector despite industry efforts: report’, Reuters, US, 10 April 2020
Brian O’Keefe, ‘Bitter Sweets’, Fortune, US, 1 March 2016   
Kareem Kysia  and  Shanto Sadhu Assessing Progress in Reducing Child Labor in Cocoa Growing Areas of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana  October 2020