Child labour is intrinsically linked to cocoa’s broader sustainability challenges. If the cocoa sector is successful at boosting production during the coming years, it will not be deemed a sustainable expansion if the issue in the two major producing countries has not been satisfactorily addressed, writes Ben Cooper.

A notion often put forward by food companies when discussing sustainability is the idea that “we must look after our agricultural supply chains because without them we would not have a business”. 

In some contexts, this certainly borders on platitude and, given the many examples where the needs of a highly commercialised food sector have had negative impacts for agricultural communities, will sometimes be seen as hypocritical.

In cocoa, however, this could not be a more accurate or telling observation. Global demand for cocoa is soaring. It is forecast a further 1m tonnes of cocoa will be required by 2020, as a result of increasing consumption in developed countries and rising demand in developing markets, notably China. 

Chocolate companies and major cocoa processors are well aware that in their current state existing cocoa supply chains simply cannot meet that demand. 

In fact, global production is moving in the wrong direction. According to figures from the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO), global production has fallen for the last three years, from a record 4.3m tonnes in 2010/11 to 4.1m tonnes in 2011/12, to an estimated 3.9m tonnes for 2012/13.

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Demand is exceeding supply and stockpiles in the supply chain will be exhausted within a few years. In the meantime, prices are rising. On the New York futures market, cocoa prices rose by 21% in 2013, and are 8% up so far this year.

The ICCO figures also reveal how dependent the global supply is on Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, respectively the world’s largest and second-largest cocoa producers. Production in Cote d’Ivoire in 2012/13 was around 1.4m tonnes, with Ghana producing around 835,000 tonnes. Production also fell during the past three years in both countries.

Moreover, it is in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana where some of the most pressing concerns exist regarding the sustainability of the cocoa supply chain, including ageing tree stock, low yields and poor pest control, a lack of access to farmer training education and depleted soils. It is not just the tree stock that is getting old: the farmers are too. The lack of productivity and low returns in cocoa farming are leading to migration away from cocoa-producing areas to cities which, for a labour-intensive crop, is an extremely worrying trend, particularly in light of the prevailing issue of child labour in cocoa production.

So projects such as the Nestle Cocoa Plan, the Hershey 21st Century Cocoa Plan, the Mars Sustainable Cocoa Initiative, Barry Callebaut’s Cocoa Horizons, the Lindt & Sprungli Farming Program and others like them are not greenwash. They pertain to and are aimed at addressing real threats facing the cocoa and chocolate industries, and need to produce tangible benefits.

Each company approach must be assessed on its own merits, and they are studiously examined by NGOs and campaigners, but they all place considerable emphasis on farmer training and the introduction of improved agricultural techniques to improve yields. This is key not only to increasing production but increasing returns for farmers to slow migration away from farming. Social investment, meanwhile, often focuses on helping to build schools, seen as a key element in addressing child labour.

These corporate programmes also all place emphasis on working with NGOs and government and inter-government agencies, vital not only for the credibility of corporate sustainability initiatives but also to their effectiveness. Cross-stakeholder collaboration and partnership is always a critical element in sustainability initiatives but arguably when it comes to meeting the pressing challenges facing the cocoa sector it is a prerequisite.

While facing undoubtedly grave issues, the cocoa sector also boasts an undoubted sustainability success story which also has its foundation in the collaboration of the corporate and voluntary sectors. The growth in sales of chocolate from certified sources has increased exponentially in recent years as brands such as Cadbury, Nestle and Mars have adopted Fairtrade, UTZ or Rainforest Alliance certification.

According to the State of Sustainability Initiatives Review 2014, certified production across all commodities (excluding biofuels) rose by an average of 41% in 2012. Thanks to the sourcing commitments of large companies, cocoa was one of the best-performing commodities, with growth in certified production of 69% in 2012.

Multi-stakeholder partnership is also vital in addressing the prevailing issue of child labour in cocoa. The focus here is also on Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana and, in spite of the grave reputational risk the issue poses to chocolate companies, for many years they were accused of acting too slowly.

However, after years of frustration and inaction following the signing of the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001, there has been progress on the child labour issue in both Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana in recent years, as the result of government action, the work of NGOs and projects and initiatives funded by chocolate and cocoa companies.

In Cote d’Ivoire, government measures have included improved classification by the US Department of State of the country’s risk profile with regard to human trafficking and the articulation of a National Action Plan for the Elimination of Child Labour and a commitment to an imminent national child labour survey. 

Actions in Ghana since 2010 have included the setting-up of a National Steering Committee on the issue to co-ordinate mitigation efforts. Significantly, the Ghanaian government has asked for a peer-review of its performance in addressing child labour by the Economic Community Of West African States (ECOWAS).

The importance of multi-stakeholder partnership was stressed by Madame Dominique Ouattara, the First Lady of Cote d’Ivoire and president of the National Oversight Committee for actions against Child Labor, Exploitation and Trafficking (CNS), when she addressed the third Stakeholder Meeting of the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) held in Abidjan in November. The First Lady included partnerships with the cocoa industry as achievements of recent years in addressing the issue.

Kenneth Mamadou, the Ghanaian Minister of Employment and Labour Relations, also stressed that its National Steering Committee functions as a multi-stakeholder platform on which collaboration and coordination can be built.

The International Cocoa Initiative is itself a multi-stakeholder organisation, comprising NGOs, trade unions and the chocolate industry, set up as a result of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. That the ICI meeting was attended by representatives of no fewer than 125 stakeholder organisations and companies speaks to the scope of the combined effort now being mobilised.

ICI executive director Nick Weatherill said the ICI’s work was built on the fundamental principle of shared responsibility. This not only relates to harnessing the necessary skills to tackle child labour effectively, he said, but was also due to a value-based conviction that “everyone deriving revenue, profit or pleasure out of chocolate should participate in efforts to improve the lives of the farmers that grow its raw material”. Weatherill also issued a challenge to stakeholders to consider setting up a funding mechanism that could facilitate additional support for child labour mitigation from the industry, producing nations and from development donors.

In spite of the progress that is being made, Madame Ouattara said “the sustainability of the cocoa sector can only be achieved if all stakeholders in the value chain, are committed to the fight against child labour”, and she called on all present to increase and harmonise their work.

As Madame Ouattara’s words underline, the child labour issue is intrinsically linked to cocoa’s broader sustainability challenges. If the cocoa sector is successful at boosting production during the coming years, this will certainly not be deemed a sustainable expansion if the child labour issue in the two major producing countries has not been satisfactorily addressed. Furthermore, issues around farmer incomes, social infrastructure and education have a direct link with and an exacerbating effect upon the child labour problem.