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Ivory Coast. Lost childhoods behind chocolate.

The number of children working in the cocoa fields continues to increase. Exploitation and hazardous labour are the bitter taste of cocoa.

Arouna,12, works in a chocolate field in the southwest of Ivory Coast. “I have to get up early every morning to reach the field along with my brother who is 10”, he says, while cleansing the soil with a hoe. He is bare-chested and you can see his ribs under the skin. Arouna, who was born on the border with Burkina Faso, was sent to the village of Sassandra in Ivory Coast eight months ago to join his father who works in a cocoa farm. The  boy, at first, thought he was sent to the  Ivory Coast to continue his studies. But once he arrived there, Arouna was led into the forest and forced to do hard manual labor in cocoa fields, and he never set foot in a school.

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Ivory Coast continues to show signs of economic and social recovery after the political crisis of 2010-2011, which led to 3000 deaths and 500,000 displaced. Peace and security have increased the number of people willing to cross the border and send their children to work in Ivorian cocoa fields, so stories like that of Arouna are becoming increasingly common. According to a survey conducted by UNICEF and the Government of Ivory Coast, the estimated number of child workers in the country has more than doubled, from 800,000 before the crisis to 1,620,000 today. The majority of children arrives from abroad – Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo or from the poorer rural areas of Ivory Coast.

A problem on the rise

Ghana and Ivory Coast, supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa. Since 1980, the market price of cocoa beans has fallen sharply, leading, therefore, local farmers to increasingly recruit children for the work in the fields.

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Child labour in the cocoa fields of Ivory Coast started to increase in 2011, after the country’s post-election crisis, when farmers of Burkina Faso felt confident enough to return to work their fields. “Over the last four years a significant number of people have migrated from countries such as Burkina Faso to the forests of Ivory Coast,” said Maxime M’Bras, head of the local NGO, ‘Stop Child Trafficking’, which fights against child labour. More than half of the child workers in Ivory Coast are employed in agriculture, one million children are exploited in the cocoa sector, according to ICI (the International Cocoa Initiative). While most of these children, according to UNICEF, are officially ’employed’ by their parents, about 10.9 percent are victims of cross-border trafficking.

The Government’s  measures

Child labour in  Ivory Coast  is  illegal and is punished with prison terms ranging from one to five years and fines from $800 up to $2200. But the reality is that the law is rarely enforced and prosecutions are almost unknown. Since 2013, the country has invested $40 million in initiatives to reduce child labour, including the construction of schools, and the creation of a tracking system intended to detect, along with other investigations, children at risk of exploitation.

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Martin N’Guettia, Executive Secretary of the Interministerial Committee of Ivory Coast and national coordinator for ‘Operation Akoma’, which fights against trafficking and child labour, said, that all these initiatives, however, are likely to have little impact if perpetrators of crimes continue to go unpunished:“The measures of prevention and protection alone cannot eliminate the phenomenon of child labour, a vigorous action of prosecution of those who are guilty of human trafficking and exploitation is needed”.

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Many children, like Aicha, who  is ten years old and works in a field close to that where Arouna works, are too afraid of denouncing the hazardous conditions under which they are forced to work. “Every morning I work in my family’s field,” says Aicha, “I pick up the fruit which I then have to sell before sunset, to buy oil and salt. This is what I do every day. The little girl would never say to the authorities that her own parents force her to work. “I’m too afraid of being abandoned and remaining alone”. (J.L.)

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