Cocoa: child labour in question(s) – Interview with sociologist Rodrigue Koné

Revealed to the general public by the feature film « Slavery, a global investigation » (2000), a British documentary by Brian Woods and Kate Blewett broadcasting (among others) the testimonies of child victims of trafficking in West Africa, forced child labour is now a major issue in the sector. According to the Cocoa Barometer 2018, more than 2 million children are still working on plantations, despite the International Cocoa Agreement of 2001, in which the actors in the sector committed themselves to fight against this form of exploitation and to reduce it by 70% by 2020. Although the Ivorian State has initiated several preventive and punitive actions, this scourge, fuelled by the intergenerational poverty of cocoa farmers, still persists. Attempt to explain with the sociologist Rodrigue Koné.
Resources: Child labour on plantations is now more than ever at the heart of cocoa news. In the course of 2019, it was even the source of a threatened US embargo on Ivorian cocoa. How can we explain the persistence of this form of exploitation despite the actions taken by the Ivorian authorities?

Rodrigue Koné: The overall impression is that it is a deep-rooted evil, intimately linked to the extensive, labour-intensive cash crop model. The impact of all this, coupled with the considerable financial manna from cocoa – redistributed throughout the sub-region via migration networks polarized on the hotbeds of economic growth – and its political weight, has a lot to do with the entrepreneurial model. The « brown gold » industry is built around very well organized migratory movements that go back decades. The beginnings of arboriculture (cocoa, coffee, rubber trees, etc., editor’s note) thus saw the establishment of a genuine immigration policy, first by the colonial state, which relied on local community leaders from the North, particularly in Mali and Burkina Faso, whose territory was then divided between the colonies of Niger, French Sudan and Côte d’Ivoire. One of the projects to develop the colonial space consisted in drawing on the labour reservoirs of these areas, which were more populated because of their history (trans-Saharan trade routes and large kingdoms at the origin of large agglomerations and important chiefdoms, editor’s note) in order to establish arboriculture in the colonies of the South, where the climate was more favourable. This system was then taken over by the post-colonial administration of Félix Houphouët-Boigny, which facilitated and intensified migratory movements by associating them with a liberal economic policy based on agricultural productivity. As these organisations were being set up, a whole range of expertise in the field of couriers, intermediaries, etc., developed. As these organizations were being set up, a whole range of expertise was developed among couriers, intermediaries, etc., attached to local notabilities, but also to religious networks such as Koranic schools, and there was a gradual shift towards an increasingly young workforce, before the phenomenon finally reached children at the turn of the 1980s and 1990s, when the pool of farm workers began to dry up (a good part of the youth going to school and then to the administration instead of going to the fields and orchards, Editor’s note) and the local communities, mainly the Baoule, became more interested in immigrant workers. This is also the period that coincides with the shift of the cocoa front from east to west and the hegemony of Burkinabe migrants in cocoa production.

R.: The issue of child labour is particularly sensitive and difficult to document. Knowing that in Africa, the family economy involves the smallest children very early on, especially in rural areas, how can its contours and abuses be clearly delineated?

R. K.: Indeed, some people have wanted to present child labour as one of the economic models of learning that can be observed in any community structure and that allows the social system to be reproduced and perpetuated. Traditionally, toddlers are empowered from an early age, whether through agricultural work or small trades. This is a way of teaching them the basic principles of economic activity so that they can later become independent and run their own businesses. All the people of my generation have been in the field with their parents; it was part of the educational imperatives we had to submit to during weekends and holidays. But I wouldn’t call it child labour, unlike systematic exploitation, where the youngest children work 7 days a week without any investment of the proceeds of their labour in their health, education, etc. I would not call it child labour. And this is problematic, because apart from the serious impact on their physical and mental well-being, we are not even in a learning process where it is a question of them eventually taking over the family business. In this context, the child becomes the instrument of purely mercantile aims, to the detriment of his personal, economic and social development. We can then speak of exploitation (all the United Nations organisations use the term « child labor » to designate this phenomenon, to be clearly differentiated from « child work » or aid to the family economy, which is considered to be acceptable, editor’s note).

R.: Concerning this issue of child labor, what is the prevailing model in Côte d’Ivoire, in your opinion?

R. K.: Unfortunately, I think that in the current state of affairs and despite the efforts undertaken, the mercantile model of exploiting children still has a bright future ahead of it. I see several reasons for this: firstly, the fact that without this providential labour force, many farms would simply cease to operate; secondly, because the « little hands of cocoa » are becoming increasingly rare; moreover, many adult migrants arriving in the country are heading for illegal gold panning, which is a source of income that is certainly more uncertain, but more important and above all faster than tree farming. We are therefore taking advantage of the established system, with children already mobilized around the Koranic or other school networks, all under the dome of notabilities, and with smugglers who know the workings of the organization perfectly well. I think that this model has taken precedence over work that is seen as social learning.

R.: Isn’t the growth in global demand likely to aggravate this situation?

R. K.: This is indeed the fatal outcome towards which Ivorian cocoa production is inexorably heading. Because it is now facing contradictory logics, namely the increase in demand and the depletion of the resources around which cocoa is produced. And because it represents one of the last economic niches, many people are investing in this sector, which is particularly demanding in terms of land and labour. Young people make up the majority of the continent’s working population. So I think that a significant proportion of the cocoa in circulation comes from the work of young people and children. There is inevitably recourse to child labour, which is well organised and is increasing because of the growing demand, but also because of the increased investment of certain assets in the allocation of farms to meet this demand.

R.: How do you see the future of Ivorian cocoa?

R. K.: I think that this model of production based on cash crops, the fruit of the colonial economy, cannot be sustainable in the long term. We have entered a critical phase that poses real challenges in terms of resource depletion, ageing orchards, available land and cocoa diseases. Solutions must be sought in terms of agronomy: fallowing, agroforestry, introduction of the intensive system, effective and continuous disease control, etc. Another problem is the overall lack of interest among young people in this sector, which is exploited and governed according to archaic methods. Personally, I don’t see a young person with a Facebook account and chatting on WhatsApp leaving for the field with a machete in his hand, because he now has the example of more efficient productive models and legitimately has other dreams. The cocoa sector, stuck in a system that has not evolved, is too ungrateful and unattractive for this potential yet abundant workforce. The cocoa farming model will enter into crisis and this crisis will reconfigure the face of the Ivorian economy.

R.: If young people lose interest in this sector, it is likely that this will leave the field open to child exploitation and trafficking networks to continue to supply the fields with labour. What are the possible alternatives?

R. K.: Indeed, in my opinion, the current model of cocoa farming cannot exist without the exploitation of the youngest. It should also be pointed out that the fight against child labour is also a risky issue for the regimes in place. Because effectively and genuinely combating these systems that have been in place for decades could call into question the entire model on which cocoa farming is based, and thus create a drying up of the workforce, which would inevitably impact the productivity of this sector that is crucial to the Ivorian economy. I believe that for this reason, people are moving forward cautiously. Starting from the principle that everyone here knows very well how migrant networks operate, we are entitled to wonder whether real control has been put in place, whether there is a real desire to combat this phenomenon, for example by getting on the buses coming from Burkina Faso or Mali, checking the age of passengers and the reason for their presence on Ivorian territory, etc. I am not saying that nothing is being done, but that, for the time being, the measures taken are indicators of facts and not of impact, and that informal networks are still managing to slip through the cracks. Putting an end to all this is, moreover, the shared responsibility of Côte d’Ivoire and the hinterland countries concerned. Finally, it should be pointed out that child labour in cocoa farms, although obviously condemnable, is only a symptom of the endemic poverty of farmers. Here again, one of the solutions to this scourge is well known to all: to move towards a logic of supporting cocoa farmers and ensuring that they are better paid. But personally, I do not think that this model will disappear overnight, because it is linked to political, economic and financial issues that are too important and too complex.

Rodrigue Koné is an Ivorian sociologist. From 2005 to 2012, he worked for the Centre de Recherche et d’Action pour la Paix (CERAP) as coordinator of peace education and conflict analysis programs. From October 2012 to September 2014, as Program Officer of the American NGO Freedom House, he accompanied Ivorian human rights defenders on transitional justice issues. D. student at the University Alassane Ouattara in Bouaké, his thesis focuses on the socio-political foundations of the evolution of the right to citizenship from 1960 to 2015 in Côte d’Ivoire, a subject at the heart of the country’s instability over the past 20 years. He is also a researcher-consultant for the African Security Sector Network (ASSN) where he is developing research on informal actors involved in the Ivorian security system. Since 2017, he holds a Chair in Bioethics at UNESCO and is closely interested in the energy issue, particularly the electricity policy of the Ivorian State.