DALOA, Ivory Coast - There may be a hidden ingredient
in the chocolate cake you baked, the candy bars your
children sold for their school fund-raiser or that fudge
ripple ice cream cone you enjoyed on Saturday afternoon.
Forty-three percent of the world's cocoa beans, the raw
material in chocolate, come from small, scattered farms in
this poor West African country. And on some of the farms,
the hot, hard work of clearing the fields and harvesting the
fruit is done by boys who were sold or tricked into slavery.
Most of them are between the ages of 12 and 16. Some are as
young as 9.
The lucky slaves live on corn paste and bananas. The
unlucky ones are whipped, beaten and broken like horses to
harvest the almond-sized beans that are made into chocolate
treats for more fortunate children in Europe and America.
Aly Diabate was almost 12 when a slave trader promised
him a bicycle and $150 a year to help support his poor
parents in Mali. He worked for a year and a half for a cocoa
farmer who is known as "Le Gros" ("the Big Man"), but he
said his only rewards were the rare days when Le Gros'
overseers or older slaves didn't flog him with a bicycle
chain or branches from a cacao tree.
Cocoa beans come from pods on the cacao tree. To get
the 400 or so beans it takes to make a pound of chocolate,
the boys who work on Ivory Coast's cocoa farms cut 10 pods
from the trees, slice them open, scoop out the beans, spread
them in baskets or on mats and cover them to ferment. Then
they uncover the beans, put them in the sun to dry, bag them
and load them onto trucks to begin the long journey to
America or Europe.
Aly said he doesn't know what the beans from the cacao
tree taste like after they've been processed and blended
with sugar, milk and other ingredients. That happens far
away from the farm where he worked, in places such as
Hershey, Pa., Milwaukee and San Francisco.
"I don't know what chocolate is," said Aly.
Americans spend $13 billion a year on chocolate, but
most of them are as ignorant of where it comes from as the
boys who harvest cocoa beans are about where their beans go.
More cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast than from
anyplace else in the world. The country's beans are prized
for their quality and abundance, and in the first three
months of this year, more than 47,300 tons of them were
shipped to the United States through Philadelphia and
Brooklyn, N.Y., according to the Port Import Export
Reporting Service. At other times of the year, Ivory Coast
cocoa beans are delivered to Camden, N.J., Norfolk, Va., and
From the ports, the beans are shipped to cocoa
processors. America's biggest are ADM Cocoa in Milwaukee, a
subsidiary of Decatur, Ill.-based Archer Daniels Midland;
Barry Callebaut, which has its headquarters in Zurich,
Switzerland; Minneapolis-based Cargill; and Nestle USA of
Glendale, Calif., a subsidiary of the Swiss food giant.
But by the time the beans reach the processors, those
picked by slaves and those harvested by free field hands
have been jumbled together in warehouses, ships, trucks and
rail cars. By the time they reach consumers in America or
Europe, free beans and slave beans are so thoroughly blended
that there is no way to know which chocolate products taste
of slavery and which do not.
However, even the Chocolate Manufacturers Association,
a trade group for American chocolate makers, acknowledges
that slaves are harvesting cocoa on some Ivory Coast farms.
A 1998 report from UNICEF, the United Nations
Children's Fund, concluded that some Ivory Coast farmers use
enslaved children, many of them from the poorer neighboring
countries of Mali, Burkina Faso, Benin and Togo. A report by
the Geneva, Switzerland-based International Labor
Organization, released June 15, found that trafficking in
children is widespread in West Africa.
The State Department's year 2000 human rights report
concluded that some 15,000 children between the ages of 9
and 12 have been sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee
and cocoa plantations in northern Ivory Coast in recent
Aly Diabate and 18 other boys labored on a 494-acre
farm, very large by Ivory Coast standards, in the
southwestern part of the country. Their days began when the
sun rose, which at this time of year in Ivory Coast is a few
minutes after 6 a.m. They finished work about 6:30 in the
evening, just before nightfall, when fireflies were
beginning to illuminate the velvety night like Christmas
lights. They trudged home to a dinner of burned bananas. If
they were lucky, they were treated to yams seasoned with
After dinner, the boys were ordered into a 24-by-20-
foot room, where they slept on wooden planks without
mattresses. The only window was covered with hardened mud
except for a baseball-size hole to let some air in.
"Once we entered the room, nobody was allowed to go
Mamadou Traore, a thin, frail youth with serious
brown eyes who is 19 now. "Le Gros gave us cans to urinate.
He locked the door and kept the key."
"We didn't cry, we didn't scream," said Aly (pronounced
AL-ee). "We thought we had been sold, but we weren't sure."
The boys became sure one day when Le Gros walked up to
Mamadou and ordered him to work harder. "I bought each of
you for 25,000 francs (about $35)," the farmer said,
according to Mamadou (MAH-mah-doo). "So you have to work
harder to reimburse me."
Aly was barely 4 feet tall when he was sold into
slavery, and he had a hard time carrying the heavy bags of
"Some of the bags were taller than me," he said. "It
took two people to put the bag on my head. And when you
didn't hurry, you were beaten."
He was beaten more than the other boys were. You can
still see the faint scars on his back, right shoulder and
"They said he wasn't working very hard," said Mamadou.
"The beatings were a part of my life," Aly said.
"Anytime they loaded you with bags and you fell while
carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead, they beat you and
beat you until you picked it up again."
At night, Aly had nightmares about working forever in
the fields, about dying and nobody noticing. To drown them
out, he replayed his memories of growing up in Mali, over
and over again.
"I was always thinking about my parents and how I could
get back to my country," he said.
But he didn't think about trying to escape.
"I was afraid," he said, his voice as faint as the
scars on his skinny body. "I had seen others who tried to
escape. When they tried they were severely beaten."
Le Gros (Leh GROW), whose name is Lenikpo Yeo, denied
that he paid for the boys who worked for him, although Ivory
Coast farmers often pay a finder's fee to someone who
delivers workers to them. He also denied that the boys were
underfed, locked up at night or forced to work more than 12
hours a day without breaks. He said they were treated well,
and that he paid for their medical treatment.
"When I go hunting, when get a kill, I divide it in
half one for my family and the other for them. Even if I
kill a gazelle, the workers come and share it."
He denied beating any of the boys.
"I've never, ever laid hands on any one of my workers,"
Le Gros said. "Maybe I called them bad words if I was angry.
That's the worst I did."
Le Gros said a Malian overseer beat one boy who had run
away, but he said he himself did not order any beatings.