The bitter truth

To some, it is their pick-me-up after a miserable day; to others, their pound-piling downfall — but everybody, without a doubt, loves chocolate. Forty four-year-old Miki Mistrati doesn’t dispute the importance of chocolate in anyone’s life — but do you know exactly where those heavenly bars come from? That’s what the Danish creator of the award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate, really wants to know.

By Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Fri 24 Feb 2012, 9:24 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 12:34 AM

With an estimated 100,000 children still labouring under appalling working conditions in the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry and an international agreement to end child labour in cocoa production nowhere close to achieving ends, the question now is: what are you going to do about it?

The issue isn’t a new one. After all, the international furore that kicked up over child labour in cocoa production in 2001 was what brought international lawmakers and chocolate manufacturers together to sign the Harkin-Engel protocol (aimed at ending child labour in cocoa production) in the first place. No, the problem is: it’s been a decade since, and Mistrati, who will be in Dubai for the first time as part of this year’s BOLDtalks community event, is still seeking answers for why his story of chocolate doesn’t quite hit the sweet spots yet.

Excerpts from an interview:

What are you hoping to gain through your talk here?

This documentary actually started at my local supermarket when I went down to buy chocolate one day. I suddenly realised that out of six chocolate bars, only one had a Fair Trade logo on it. I went home and did a lot of research and that’s how I came to make the film. So I’m hoping that my talk tomorrow will inspire people to be more concerned about the world and how we are producing goods like chocolate.

What are the current statistics on the number of illegal children working these farms?

It’s so difficult to get the right picture because most of them work illegally and very deep in the bush. According to the UN, there are more than 110,000 kids working in cocoa plantations — in Ivory Coast alone. Many times, I’ve heard chocolate companies say this is just part of the culture of Africa. But in my opinion, I don’t think the culture is one that allows children to work in dangerous parts of plantations with machetes, pesticides and heavy loads. Many plantation owners use kids because they cannot afford to have adult workers on the plantations, but this is not the right way to get out of poverty.

A lot of people would argue that Africa would need that kind of trade to begin improving their infrastructure.

I think that the biggest problem right now is that you have a lot of unemployment in Africa and the education of children is very poor. You don’t have proper schools or education for the poorest people in Africa. Kids should be in schools, not in cocoa fields working for farmers.

Tell us about some of the kids you met while filming the documentary.

It was heartbreaking. I filmed a boy with a secret camera forced to go with some traffickers from Mali to a border town in Ivory Coast. He must have been around seven or eight years old. He was crying and was many, many kilometres from his village. Kids get tricked and transported from Burkina Faso or Mali into Ivory Coast all the time. Most of the kids I met on the plantations were about 8-12 years old. You can see in their eyes that they cannot speak the local language. They probably don’t know where they are because they’re perhaps 2,000 kilometres from home.

The chocolate companies should know how it is as many of them have headquarters in Ivory Coast and it would take them just a 4-5 hour drive in a 4WD into the bush to see how it works.

What sort of labour is expected from these kids?

The kids work from sunrise to sunset and live in small shelters out in the plantation. They get some food but most are unpaid. It’s the cheapest way of living for Ivorian farmers who don’t have the money to pay adult workers.

What are the daily hazards of the kids’ working conditions?

I used to see eight-year-olds working with really heavy loads on those plantations. Many of them constantly get injured because of the sharp machetes they use to cut the cocoa pods with. When you are injured deep in the bush and there are no doctors around, it’s a serious problem. Also, the effects of the pesticides they work with are long-term and really dangerous to work with.

What were the challenges you faced while filming this documentary?

The French journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer was kidnapped in Ivory Coast in 2006 for doing the same work I did and he’s still missing today. It’s obviously difficult to be a journalist working in Africa, especially in Ivory Coast, which produces almost 40 per cent of the cocoa. It’s a very big business so they don’t really appreciate people like me sneaking around and criticising them. I haven’t been allowed back into Ivory Coast since making this film.

Where does the Harkin-Engel protocol stand right now?

Every time someone asks what’s happening with the protocol, they just say they’ve progressed a lot and that things are much better than they were 10 years ago. In my opinion, it’s nothing more than a document and politics. The prices that farmers sell the beans to middlemen for have fallen dramatically over the last ten years. On the other hand, the prices for cocoa in the stock market has risen. Basically, the farmer is not getting paid for his produce and I think the greatest responsibility lies with the big companies that buy these cocoa beans.

The protocol deadline was first moved from 2005 to 2008 and then moved again. How much longer do you think they’ll keep pushing it back?

(Laughs) I think if we talk again five years from now, we will be discussing the same issues. I know there is a lot of pressure on the industry right now so I think we will soon see some changes — only I doubt it will be through the Harkin-Engel protocol. I think it will be through consumers who demand change and better conditions for the workers.

How are the kids on these plantations any different from kids who grow up working on family farms in America?

I think the biggest difference is the schooling. International labour organisations allow for kids to help out on farms for an hour or two. Their main time, however, has to be in a school. Of course, if we’re talking about illegal Mexican immigrant children working on an American plantation, we’re looking at the same problem.

So your main point of contention is that the kids deserve to go to school. What about the fact they’re working at such a young age?

It’s fine as long as they’re working in proper conditions and following UN guidelines on the subject. It’s when they don’t go to school and work in terrible conditions that there is a problem.

Are there major chocolate producers doing something about the child labour connection?

There are some that are now trying to change production methods and trying to buy more Fair Trade cocoa. The biggest ones claim to spend a lot of money on projects in Africa. But how much money they’ve been spending the last 10 years is nothing compared to the revenue they’re generating. They claim they’re doing a lot — but go to West Africa. Then you’ll see how the projects are run and whether they’re really enough.

It is quite complex for these companies to track down exactly where their cocoa comes from, especially if they’re buying their supply from commodities exchanges where Ivorian cocoa is mixed with other cocoa.

I’ve heard that argument before. There are major manufacturers that have been in Ivory Coast for more than 50 years and are even headquartered there who buy their cocoa from different exporters. Why not buy the fields and control the cocoa directly instead? In South America, there are a lot of plantations where the companies either own or are close to the plantations. These companies should do the same if they really wish to change.

What would you have consumers in the UAE do?

Consumers need to find out if the chocolate bar they’re eating has been made by illegal child labour. If so, they should demand that their chocolate comes with a guarantee that they have not been made by illegal child labour.

In the absence of many Fair Trade chocolates in this country, how do you propose we go forward?

That’s a big question. I do not know how it is in the Gulf region but I think that we as consumers should be more aware of how we produce stuff — whether it is food or clothes… There is a lot of awareness right now, especially in Europe, and I suppose it will come to the Gulf states soon. What’s terrible is that for some reason, in 2012, we still have a modern kind of slavery going on. I’m not proud of being part of such a world where we’re still fighting a modern slavery today. And I’m hoping people will feel the same way the next time they go into a supermarket store.

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