The spectre of the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism in Africa is supposed to be locked in the tomb of the past. The inhumane subjugation of people for luxuries like sugar, tobacco and cocoa is something no one wants to think about — but it happened, and it’s still happening to children.
In 2000, a BBC documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation, exposed child trafficking and child labour on cocoa plantations in West Africa. The plantations that were enslaving children were also supplying some of the largest cocoa manufacturing companies in Europe. These companies denied child labour violations, but when more evidence emerged, they were forced to acknowledge the problem. They voluntarily signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, an agreement among cocoa producers, manufacturers, state governments and non-governmental organizations to eliminate the worst forms of child labour, like the sale and trafficking of children and forced labour, by 2005.
This date came and went with very little change. In 2009, the International Criminal Police Organization rescued 50 child workers of seven different nationalities from a cocoa plantation in West Africa. The Harkin-Engel Protocol has been extended and revised several times while child trafficking and labour continues. Children as young as 11 are removed from their homes and sent to toil on cocoa plantations in other countries.
Working conditions are dangerous and cause many injuries to young children who are forced to carry heavy loads and use machetes and noxious pesticides. These child labourers, who are often sent away to find work by their own families, work all day for no pay or hope for a better future. Children lose their loved ones as well as their childhood when they go to work for the cocoa industry.
The Ivory Coast produces 42 per cent of the world’s cocoa. International manufacturers like Nestlé, Cargill, ADM and Barry Callebaut have operations in Abidjan, the economic centre of the nation. In 2004, Guy André Keiffer, a Canadian journalist, was kidnapped from a parking lot in Abidjan while tracking a story about cocoa and government corruption. He is still missing.
Action has been taken against chocolate-making corporations, but the law does not hold them responsible for what happens on plantations. Governments accused of not protecting their most vulnerable populations can also claim innocence. The systemic passing of the buck, between governments, corporations and farmers will continue to evade a solution to the perpetuation of slavery. Only when we acknowledge the legacy of our colonial past will we be able to deconstruct the systems that reinforce the institution of slavery.
According to Carol Off, author of Bitter Chocolate, the structural adjustment programs, imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to reduce debt loads in nations like the Ivory Coast, resulted in the dismantling of co-operatives, subsidies and social safety-nets that impoverished local farmers. When European powers abandoned their colonies, they left many African nations high and dry. Colonialists acquired as many resources as they could before the international community began to question the morality of their methods. Exiting the scene of crime with their booty in tow, colonial powers left their rap sheet of atrocities behind them without having to pay any retribution for hundreds of years of enslavement and theft committed against Africans.
So now, having no regulations or support, cocoa farmers are at the disposal of multinational corporations who control costs through a monopoly over the marketing, purchase and sale of the product.
The slavery and colonialism of the past has given way to a new and more insidious form of servitude that we can’t wipe our hands clean of. Neocolonialism is alive and well, and we are complicit in its perpetuation. Consumers sponsor the $90 billion a year industry that creates conditions of extreme disparity.
Hershey Foods Corp., Cadbury Ltd., M&M Mars and Toblerone are just a few of the companies profiting from child labour in Africa. They say child labour on cocoa plantations is something that can’t be controlled, yet other companies like Denman Island Chocolate, Dagoba Organic Chocolate and Green and Black’s have successfully instituted fair trade standards.
Child labour and trafficking in West Africa is an indication of a larger problem with humanity. No one wants to admit that there is a massive structural and psychical problem with our current economic system. The global north is addicted to the comforts and luxuries attained at the expense of an exploited global south. Most people aren’t even aware of these problems, while others justify our continued participation in the slave economy with the assumption that poor children will be worse off without the work they get at plantations. Fear of the unknown immobilizes us, but we continue to indulge in chocolate’s sweet oblivion.
Child trafficking and labour will only get worse unless we acknowledge neocolonialism and take action against it. Adopting the same attitude of the chocolate companies, who claim they can’t control the practices of plantation owners, will only fortify the shackles of slavery. We all have the power to make change happen, whether through exerting political pressure or voting with dollars. But the most important step everyone needs to take is the abolition of the colonized mind.