A Taste of Slavery
Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee
Knight Ridder Newspapers
June 24, 2001
Part 1: How your chocolate may be tainted
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 San Francisco.
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 years.
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 saltwater "gravy."
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 out," said 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 cocoa beans. "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 left arm. "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.
Part 2: Life on a Slave Farm
One day early last year, a boy named Oumar Kone was caught trying to escape. One of Le Gros' overseers beat him, said the other boys and local authorities. A few days later, Oumar ran away again, and this time he escaped. He told elders in the local Malian immigrant community what was happening on Le Gros' farm. They called Abdoulaye Macko, who was then the Malian consul general in Bouake, a town north of Daloa, in the heart of Ivory Coast's cocoa- and coffee-growing region.
Macko (MOCK-o) went to the farm with several police officers, and he found the 19 boys there. Aly, the youngest, was 13. The oldest was 21. They had spent anywhere from six months to four and a half years on Le Gros' farm.
"They were tired, slim, they were not smiling," Macko said. "Except one child was not there. This one, his face showed what was happening. He was sick, he had (excrement) in his pants. He was lying on the ground, covered with cacao leaves because they were sure he was dying. He was almost dead. . . . He had been severely beaten."
According to medical records, other boys had healed scars as well as open, infected wounds all over their bodies. Police freed the boys, and a few days later the Malian consulate in Bouake sent them all home to their villages in Mali. The sick boy was treated at a local hospital, then he was sent home, too.
Le Gros was charged with assault against children and suppressing the liberty of people. The latter crime carries a five- to 10 year prison sentence and a hefty fine, said Daleba Rouba, attorney general for the region.
"In Ivorian law, an adult who orders a minor to hit and hurt somebody is automatically responsible as if he has committed the act," said Rouba. "Whether or not Le Gros did the beatings himself or ordered somebody, he is liable."
Le Gros spent 24 days in jail, and today he is a free man pending a court hearing that is scheduled for June 28. Rouba said the case against Le Gros is weak because the witnesses against him have all been sent back to Mali.
"If the Malian authorities are willing to cooperate, if they can bring two or three of the children back as witnesses, my case will be stronger," Rouba said. Mamadou Diarra, the Malian consul general in Bouake, said he would look into the matter.
Child trafficking experts say inadequate legislation, ignorance of the law, poor law enforcement, porous borders, police corruption and a shortage of resources help perpetuate the problem of child slavery in Ivory Coast. Only 12 convicted slave traders are serving time in Ivorian prisons. Another eight, convicted in absentia, are on the lam.
The middlemen who buy Ivory Coast cocoa beans from farmers and sell them to processors seldom visit the country's cocoa farms, and when they do, it's to examine the beans, not the workers. Young boys are a common sight on the farms of West Africa, and it's impossible to know without asking which are a farmer's own children, which are field hands who will be paid $150 to $180 after a year's work and which are slaves.
"We've never seen child slavery. We don't go to the plantations. The slavery here is long gone," said G.H. Haidar, a cocoa buyer in Daloa, in the heart of Ivory Coast's cocoa region. "We're only concerned with our work."
The Chocolate Manufacturers Association, based in Vienna, Va., at first said the industry was not aware of slavery, either. After Knight Ridder began inquiring about the use of slaves on Ivory Coast cocoa farms, however, the CMA in late April acknowledged that a problem might exist and said it strongly condemned "these practices wherever they may occur."
In May, the association decided to expand an Ivory Coast farming program to include education on "the importance of children." And in June, the CMA agreed to fund a survey of child labor practices on Ivory Coast cocoa farms.
Finally, on Friday, the CMA announced some details of the joint study, which will survey 2,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast. ``Now we are not debating that this is true," CMA President Larry Graham said Friday when asked about cocoa farm slavery. ``We're accepting that this is a fact."
Ivorian officials have found scores of enslaved children from Mali and Burkina Faso and sent them home and they have asked the International Labor Organization, a global workers' rights agency, to help them conduct a child labor survey that's expected to be completed this year.
But they continue to blame the problem on immigrant farmers from Mali and on world cocoa prices that have fallen almost 24 percent since 1996, from 67 cents a pound to 51 cents, forcing impoverished farmers to use the cheapest labor they can find.
Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister Alfonse Douaty calls child slavery a marginal "clandestine phenomenon" that exists on only a handful of the country's more than 600,000 cocoa and coffee farms.
"Those who do this are hidden, well hidden," said Douaty (Doo-AH-tee). He said his government is clamping down on child traffickers by beefing up border patrols and law enforcement, and running education campaigns to boost awareness of anti-slavery laws and efforts.
Douaty said child labor in Ivory Coast should not be called slavery, because the word conjures up images of chains and whips. He prefers the term "indentured labor."
Ivory Coast authorities ordered Le Gros to pay Aly and the other boys a total of 4.3 million African Financial Community francs (about $6,150) for their time as indentured laborers. Aly got 125,000 francs (about $180) for the 18 months he worked on the cocoa farm.
Aly bought himself the very thing the trader who enslaved him had promised: a bicycle. It has a light, a yellow horn and colorful bottle caps in the spokes. He rides it everywhere.
Aly helps his parents by selling vegetables in a nearby market, but he still doesn't understand why he was a slave. When he was told that some American children spend nearly as much every year on chocolate as he was paid for six months' work harvesting cocoa beans, he replied without bitterness:
"I bless them because they are eating it."
Part 3: Lured by a promise of money
SIKASSO, Mali - Businessmen called "locateurs" wait in the little bus station in this large border town, where crammed mini-buses leave for Ivory Coast every 30 minutes. They search the crowds for children traveling alone, looking lost or begging for food. "Would you like a great job in Cote d'Ivoire?" they ask, using the official name of the former French colony. "I can find you one."
The dusty alley behind the bus station is brimming with vendors selling everything from food to cigarettes. There are cobblers and shanty kiosks selling bootleg tapes of West African pop music. Chickens and goats abound, and dust mingles with the scent of raw meat.
There also is a dark warehouse with blackened walls and a thick wooden door covered with tin sheeting that locks from the outside. Malian officials say slave traders sometimes keep their young victims here overnight so they can't escape.
Kadi Samaka, a sidewalk vendor, sits in front of the warehouse and sells the peanuts she roasts in a black kettle. She has watched adults bring children carrying bags to sleep in the warehouse.
"Sometimes, the men buy the children some food," said Samaka, 19. "The next morning, they take the children and go." Samaka said she doesn't intervene. "The children looked happy," she explained, shrugging.
Nearly half of the world's cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast farms, some of which use boys who were sold or tricked into slavery to do the harvesting.
"Slavery is so much a part of the structure of society that it becomes invisible," said Beth Herzfeld of Anti- Slavery International, a nonprofit group in London that formed in 1839 and provided moral and material support to the American abolitionist movement.
This is a part of Africa where children, out of respect, will do anything to help their parents. Many men have two or three wives and dozens of children, and it's common to see boys and girls as young as 6 selling coconut milk in shells on the streets.
Virtually all the boys who wind up working on cocoa farms come from poor farming families and seldom get any schooling. Boys of their background generally start working in their parents' fields between the ages of 12 and 15.
When times weren't so bad, Malian parents who were too poor to afford proper schooling placed their children with better-off families to learn skills such as farming. The apprenticed children were treated properly and almost always returned home.
And for decades, the more prosperous Ivory Coast has offered children from Mali and other African countries not only a living but also a chance to see the world outside their villages, to learn new skills and to bring home some money after a year or two.
But hard times "have enhanced the greed of people," said Ndolamb Ngokwey, the deputy regional director for West Africa for UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund. Slave trading "is a kind of perversion of a traditional practice, which is now becoming a very visible problem."
"In the Malian mentality, when your child leaves your family, we think he's going to be safe with other adults," said Malian child welfare official Sibiry Dembele. "We cannot consider an old man doing harm to the kid. Even today, it's difficult to convince some Malians that their children were being trafficked."
Most of the slave traders are Malian men, but women and Ivorians also work in the trade. Malians don't need passports or visas to enter Ivory Coast. In theory, children younger than 18 cannot cross the border unless they are accompanied by an adult, who must show identification. If the adult is a relative, no questions are asked about children traveling with him. If not, the children must have permission from their parents to cross the border.
That's why the traffickers often order the children to call them "uncle" or "aunt." And a few bucks often can convince the authorities, as well. "The police sometimes check the IDs, and sometimes they are the ones taking bribes," said Felix Ackebo of UNICEF.
Once they are across the border, the traffickers usually hand over the children to other traders, who deal them to Ivorian and Malian immigrant farmers in cocoa- and coffee-producing regions such as Daloa, where signs advertising Nestle Quik dot the streets.
Traffickers bring as many as 10 boys a month to Siaka Cisse's small, ramshackle house in Daloa, which doubles as his son's furniture shop. From there the 60-year-old former bus driver distributes smuggled children to local farmers.
Disoriented and scared, the boys trust Cisse because like many of them he speaks Bamara, a Malian tribal language. Neither Cisse nor the farmers ask where or how the traffickers got the children.
Virtually all the boys are illiterate, but Cisse gets them to sign - more like a scratchy squiggle - a contract scrawled in French on notebook paper. It says they agree to work for about $180 a year. But they eventually discover they may not be paid that year, and that many will never be paid at all.
Cisse (pronounced SEE-say), who has 20 children of his own, said he receives only a small "gift" from each farmer - $1 or $2 per child. But a boy named Mombi Bakayoko said his master paid Cisse about $13 for him, and another $20 "transport fee" to the trafficker who brought him to Ivory Coast. Other boys said Cisse gets an average of about $12 per child.
If any children he placed get paid, Cisse makes sure it's in front of him. Three children he placed said they had to give him a cut of what they had earned.
"I have no deal with the kids," responded Cisse, a stout man in a lime green robe and a purple Muslim skull cap. "The farmers pay me."
Does he see anything wrong with dealing in children?
"I don't know their ages," he said. "I only pick sturdy kids."
Cisse said it's not his fault if farmers abuse the children. He said he had gone to farms four times in the past three years to retrieve children after they sent messages to him through people traveling to Daloa.
"Lack of food, for example."
What did he do with those children?
"Found them work with other farmers." He said he did that at the boys' request.
Cisse said he hadn't trafficked in young teens for the past year, because local Malian elders expressed concern.
"Ever since the Malian committee told me not to deal in kids, I've stopped bringing 15-year-olds," he said, smiling.
When a reporter told Cisse that one of his clients had produced two contracts, one for a 15-year-old and one for a 16-year-old, both prepared and signed last year by him, he appeared startled. He paused, then casually responded: "That could be. Unless I see them, I don't know." Then he flashed a warm smile and asked politely: "Where are they?" The two teen-agers were 30 miles away on cocoa farmer Sekongo Nagalouro's small, sun-dappled plantation.
"I need labor, and since there's this offer from the fixers, we get these kids to work here," Nagalouro explained. "I treat them well." Nagalouro (Naa-gah-LOW-row) said he plans to pay the boys at the end of the year, but only if he makes enough money for his family and for expenses for the next season's crop.
He now sells his cocoa beans for a little more than 30 cents a pound. Last year, he got about 45 cents; the year before, 50 cents. If there's a problem with him being able to pay the boys, he said, he'll discuss it with Cisse, not with them.
"Maybe there are some people who think this is modern- day slavery, but I don't think so," said Nagalouro. "What agreements the kids have with those who brought them here (to Ivory Coast), I don't know about. All I know is when they are available, I go and get them."
Part 4: Two Boys, Two Years, No Pay
OUROUTA,Ivory Coast - Brahima Male and Siaka Traure met two years ago in the little bus station in Sikasso, Mali, where slave traders wait.
Siaka was 14 and Brahima was just turning 12, and Siaka packed his nice olive green shirt because he thought he was going to have "a good time" in Ivory Coast.
A "locateur" offered them work as welders or carpenters. Neither boy had any experience at those trades, but the locateur said his "big brother" in Ivory Coast would pay them each about $170 a year, 120,000 African Financial Community francs. He offered to take them there for free.
The two boys were taken to wait in a warehouse near the bus station for a few hours. More boys came, until there were 15. Then they drove off in two white mini-buses with two men in each vehicle.
"The locateur told us that if we were stopped by police, we should tell them that he was our elder brother," said Siaka (pronounced See-AH-ka).
When they neared the border, the boys were ordered to get out and take motorcycle taxis. They continued on a back road and slipped into Ivory Coast undetected. The taxis took them to a nearby village, where the white mini-buses were waiting to take them on to the town of Korhogo.
"I was suspicious, but I was also scared," said Brahima (Bruh-HEE-muh). "We were already across and I didn't know how I could run away. I had no money."
Dote Coulibaly was waiting in Korhogo. He needed two boys to work on his cocoa and coffee farm.
Coulibaly (COO-lee-baa-lee) said he bought Brahima and Siaka for $28 each, but the boys said he paid that much for both of them. Whatever the price, two days later they found themselves on his farm.
"When we arrived, he had not told us the whole story," said Brahima. "He told us we would work only in the cocoa and coffee fields. But there were also cotton, yam, corn and rice fields. When you finish one field, you go to another and another."
Nearly half of the world's cocoa beans come from Ivory Coast farms, some of which use boys like Brahima and Siaka who were sold or tricked into slavery to do the harvesting.
Brahima is a tall, thin boy with muscular arms and a cherubic face. He has been enslaved on Coulibaly's farm nearly two years. He shares a windowless mud hut with Siaka, and he doesn't ask much from life. He just wants to leave.
But he seldom thinks of trying to escape. When Siaka tried to flee last year, Coulibaly beat him, Siaka said.
"He tied me behind my back with rope and beat me with a piece of wood," said Siaka, peeling back his shirt to show the scars on his left shoulder and arm. "Then he took a small gun, and said, `I'm going to kill you and dump you in a well.' "
Coulibaly denied that he beat Siaka. But he didn't apologize for intimidating and bullying Siaka and Brahima into submission.
After all, he said, he paid $28 each for them.
"If I let them go, I'm losing money, because I spent money for them," explained Coulibaly, 39, wearing grimy khaki pants and holding a machete. "It will hurt me to lose them. So when I have the feeling that a person is trying to run away, I find that person and ask them why they want to leave."
"One day, Siaka tried to run away," he continued. "I sat him down and said, `If you really don't want to work, you give me my money and I'll let you go.' Siaka said, `I'm sorry, I'm sorry.' But I kept telling him to give me my money.
"Then I said, `You know I spent money on you. If you try to escape, I'll catch you and beat you.' After that, we were on better terms. He's never been impolite to me since then. . . . I just frightened him."
Coulibaly flashed a toothy smile and shrugged, as if he expected his visitors to understand.
He feeds the two boys adequately, and he gave them $18 each to celebrate two Muslim holidays. They used the money to buy sandals and soap.
But when their year was up last September, he told them that two of his relatives had died and he had had to pay for their funerals and other expenses. So could the boys please wait until January to be paid?
When January came, Coulibaly said he would pay them at the end of this year. But he admits he may have a hard time raising the $680 he owes them for two years' work. Last year, he made only $570, and the economy is getting worse.
"These days you cannot make predictions anymore," said Coulibaly.
He doesn't watch the boys as closely now. Since he owes them money, he knows they won't run away.
"If you leave, you are the loser and he'll be happy," said Brahima, his voice fading in the rustle of the wind.
So Siaka and Brahima never venture very far from their master's farm.
"Daloa is Paris to us," said Brahima, as he sat beside a big red termite hill and watched Siaka work in the olive green shirt he had brought for the good times in Ivory Coast. It is in tatters.
Why slavery still exists: Those along the 'chocolate chain' put blame on someone else
How could modern society allow youngsters to be enslaved to produce a crop that becomes the very food - chocolate - that symbolizes happiness, luxury and romance?
It can happen because it's nearly hidden. The enslaved boys whom Knight Ridder found worked mostly on small farms scattered in remote parts of Ivory Coast. Few people get to the farms, even those in the cocoa trade. If they visit and see children at work, it's nearly impossible to tell if the children are members of the farmer's family or have been bought by the farmer, who may or may not pay them after years of work.
That allows everyone along the chocolate chain to pass blame and responsibility for the boy slaves to someone else. Farmers who use slaves blame the people responsible for the price of cocoa. Middlemen who deal with farmers say they don't see any slavery. Ivory Coast government officials who enforce slavery laws say it's foreigners who are selling and using slaves in their country. Cocoa suppliers say they can't be responsible because they don't control the farms. Chocolate companies say they rely on their suppliers to provide cocoa untainted by slave labor. The trade associations blame Ivory Coast's unstable political situation. And consumers don't have an inkling that their favorite chocolate treats may be tainted by slave labor.
Sekongo Nagalouro doesn't think the boys working on his Ivory Coast farm are slaves. It's true that he gave a trafficker money for them. And it's true that he hasn't paid them yet for the work they do. But he intends to pay them at the end of the year from his crop profits, he said. Providing he can take care of his family and future crop expenses first. It all depends, he said, on the price of cocoa.
"Maybe there are some people who think this is modern- day slavery, but I don't think so," Nagalouro said.
Another Ivory Coast farmer, Dote Coulibaly, said he hasn't paid two boys who have worked on his farm for nearly two years. Other expenses keep getting in the way, he said, and now he owes the boys more than he made in all of last year.
Many who acknowledge that slavery exists offer the same explanation: the low price of cocoa.
"We cannot blame the farmers for exploiting these workers," said Abdelilah Benkirane, commercial director of the Society of Commercial Agricultural Producers of Daloa, one of Ivory Coast's biggest cocoa and coffee buyers, which exports 80 percent of its purchases to the United States and Europe. "The farmer has no influence on the global system. The system dictates the price."
Ivory Coast government officials concede that slaves work on some of the country's cocoa farms. But they believe that slavery is a small - though spreading - problem confined mostly to farms run by foreigners.
"Thank heavens, the proportion of this type of criminal farmers remains very low still,'' Ivory Coast Agriculture Minister Alfonse Douaty told members of the cocoa industry who were meeting in London in May. "One must also observe that a minuscule part of the native population is starting, nevertheless, to get involved."
Douaty also blames cocoa prices, and says other nations must help.
" ... At an international level, we must also combine our efforts in committing to prices which provide sufficient income to the basic producer, so as to avoid perpetuating poverty in exporting countries and thus creating the conditions which lend themselves to the development of slavery in whichever form it presents itself."
People who work in the cocoa and chocolate industries aren't sure there really are slaves harvesting the beans they buy and process.
"You damn Americans with your Nike shoes think there is child slavery in chocolate,'' said Valerie Issumo, who goes into the fields as a buyer in West Africa for ED&F; Man, a top cocoa processor. "I have never seen any child slaves in all my travels through Africa.''
"Everyone we have talked to in the country who has worked there years and years has never seen this practice," said Larry Graham, president of both the National Confectioners Association and the Chocolate Manufacturers Association of Vienna, Va.
"If it exists, then we are going to correct it,'' Graham said, "... starting with government action, working with NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) and educating farmers... That is, if there is a problem." Weeks later, Graham conceded that slaves do work on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. ``Initially, there was quite a lot of debate about whether this was true and how serious it was," he said Friday. "... Now we are not debating that this is true. We're accepting that this is a fact."
"It's not clear how big or small it is,'' said John Faulkner, spokesman for Godiva chocolates, which uses a lot of Ivory Coast cocoa because of the fine flavor. "There are people who have been to the Ivory Coast 50 times and say they have never seen this... But just because you haven't seen the problem doesn't mean there isn't the problem. Let's be clear about that.''
Faulkner said Godiva's cocoa supplier, Barry Callebaut, based in Zurich, Switzerland, gave assurances that "No slavery practices have been reported and none would be tolerated."
But, he conceded, "I can't guarantee anything. Candidly... to be able to sit here and guarantee that it is not happening, it's not being realistic.''
"What we don't control we cannot guarantee,'' said Willy Geraerts, director of corporate quality for Barry Callebaut. "When the cocoa comes to us, it is such a long chain, and before it gets to us, controlled by middlemen along the way. I don't think that any company today... can give this guarantee.''
People who buy the finished chocolate product say they are largely powerless to address the issue, if they know about it at all.
"We are definitely aware of it and definitely concerned about it, but being a very small voice to our suppliers you can't easily go demanding a lot of things,'' said Tim Bergquist, president of International Chocolate Co. in Salt Lake City. The company sells single-origin chocolates, including some made from Ivory Coast cocoa beans.
"It's more a matter of economics than a lack of principle,'' Bergquist said.
"We buy a finished product long beyond the bean,'' said Gary Regenbaum of Mom `n Pops candy company of New Windsor, N.Y., which buys chocolate to coat its lollipops. "I have never considered where the beginning of this product came from.... I'll look into this and make every effort to stop it.''
Most distant of all from the cocoa farm is the consumer, who has little reason to think about who harvested the cocoa beans that went into the gaily wrapped chocolate at the candy counter.
"In Canada, Europe, America, what we have on our shelves is cheap, such as coffee, chocolate bars," said Michel Larouche, the West Africa regional director for Save the Children Canada. "If we put a stop to child trafficking the prices of certain things - cotton shirts, coffee, candy bars - will rise. The reality is if your products are this cheap, it's because of this situation."
"Are (the companies) responsible?" Larouche said. "It's hard to say one is responsible. It's easier to look at who is not responsible.
"Every time one closes his eyes and buys a product made by children, then he is also responsible. He becomes an accomplice."