By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, D.C., Oct 31 (OneWorld) -- Parents, children and schoolteachers in the United States should send Halloween candy produced by M&M/Mars back to the candy giant--with an appeal to start buying Fair Trade cocoa, the only kind that guarantees a living wage to cocoa producers, urges a West Coast social justice group.
Global Exchange hopes that the largest U.S. candy producer will get the message that children are willing to deny their own sweet teeth in order to make the lives of hundreds of thousands of children who are forced to work on small cocoa farms less bitter.
In a new report released Friday, the group charges that global companies like M&M/Mars are making the ongoing crisis for small farmers worse by keeping cocoa prices low, even though their profits have been relatively unaffected by the ongoing crisis.
The report, "While M&M Smiles, Child Cocoa Workers Cry," also assails the World Bank (news - web sites) and the International Monetary Fund (news - web sites) for exacerbating the problem by imposing economic reforms on West African governments that eliminated state-run marketing boards mandated to protect farmers from the vagaries of global commodity markets.
"This Halloween, we're seeing an all-out demand for Fair Trade cocoa products, particularly from America's youngest chocolate lovers," said Melissa Schweisguth, the co-author of a new Global Exchange report released on Halloween eve. "Americans want to be sure that Halloween ceases to be full of terror and tricks for cocoa farmers as it is now. By returning chocolate to Mars, children and adults are sending a clear message asking for Fair Trade chocolate, not products bitter with exploitation."
Concern about child labor in cocoa production has grown since reports that thousands of West African children were being forced to work on cocoa farms in West Africa surfaced in the western media. While most of the children were working on their family farms, the U.S. State Department and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF (news - web sites)) found that thousands of children
from poor countries like Burkina Faso and Mali were also being sold to work on farms in Cote d'Ivoire, where almost half of the world's cocoa beans are produced.
The media reports sparked a furor in Washington where the House of Representatives quickly approved legislation directing federal regulators to devise a mandatory "no child slavery" label for chocolate products sold in the United States, a move that drew alarms from U.S. manufacturers, who said virtually all chocolates produced here include Ivoirean cocoa.
The United States is the world's largest importer of cocoa products by far, consuming annually more than three billion pounds of chocolate at a total cost of some $13 billion.
In the face of almost-certain passage of the legislation, as well as threats of consumer boycotts, North American and European manufacturers last year launched the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) to address the problem of child labor by working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local governments on programs to monitor and enforce international bans on child
and forced labor in West Africa.
Although the ICI was hailed by the International Labor Organization and several prominent NGOs as a major breakthrough, Global Exchange and other NGOs like the International Labor Rights Fund have concluded that it does not go far enough. In their view, the key to tackling child labor in West African cocoa fields lies as much or more with ensuring that the farmers are paid a fair price for their cocoa.
The answer, in their view, lies with persuading the big companies to buy Fair Trade cocoa.
Fair trade cocoa is produced by farmer cooperatives whose work and operations are certified by Fairtrade Labeling Organizations (FLO) as complying with certain standards. Fair Trade cooperatives must be democratically organized and non-discriminatory; they must prohibit abusive
child labor and maintain a "social fund" that is used by the community to improve living conditions and crop diversification and environmental quality. The cooperatives can realize savings by selling directly to fair-trade buyers that guarantee them a minimum price per pound without relying on middlemen.
While Fair Trade coffee has made major progress in penetrating the U.S. market--and is now being sold to big manufacturers including Starbucks, Sara Lee, and Procter and Gamble--since 1999, Fair Trade cocoa was introduced to U.S. consumers only 14 months ago through small companies.
Currently, the Fair Trade cocoa system involves eight cooperatives in eight countries (Ghana, Cameroon, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador) representing a total of 42,000 farmers and their families. The largest cooperative by far is the Kuapo Kookoo Cooperative in Ghana. Supported by Lutheran World Relief, the cooperative has established a
farmers' credit union and is also part owner of The Day Chocolate Company of England (along with the Body Shop and Twin Trading) which produces "Divine" brand chocolate bars for both domestic consumption and export.
Despite the success of Fair Trade coffee, however, major western chocolate and cocoa manufacturers like M&M/Mars have ignored Fair Trade cocoa, preferring instead to buy cocoa through traditional commodity brokers, a practice that serves only to perpetuate the conditions that have impoverished small farmers and worsened labor conditions in recent years.
The big companies' boycott of the system means that the cooperatives can sell only a small percentage of their crop at Fair Trade prices.
"If companies are serious about real change, they must embrace Fair Trade certification," Schweisguth said.