Ivory Coast and the problem of chocolate

“Sustainable and fair,” is the label in the supermarket on chocolate, peanut butter, coffee and tea.  Dutch consumers prefer “sustainable” sprinkles, because thanks to our buying behavior, as we know, poor farmers in the Third World can develop their farms and send their children to school.  But as so often, reality is not so simple. A farmer must fulfill many demands if he wants a “fair and sustainable” label given.  One World investigated in Ivory Coast in West Africa, where over 40% of the world’s chocolate comes from, and shows that to many poor cocoa farmers the promises of development are still far way.

The road to Yakasse Attobrou, a town in the middle of the Ivorian chocolate Agneby region is more hole than road. One after the other cocoa-truck passes in a cloud of dust and sand. In the rainy season the beans rot in the barns. It’s just one of many problems for the Ivorian chocolate farmer: the government elite of the country for the past decades put the bulk of the cocoa profits in its pocket instead of investing in agricultural development, roads, or schools for the plantation children.

The laxity of the government caused the farmers in Agneby to look for outside help.They do their best to qualify for international labels, so they can be part of the privileged group that is sustainable and therefore may receive a ‘fair’ price for crops.

On the COOPROYA cooperative, two hundred kilometers north of the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, its crowded during our visit: dozens of laborers, bags full of cocoa on their heads, run from warehouses to trucks that bear the logo of Rainforest Alliance, which certifies the Cote d’Or chocolate. In a shiny Toyota 4 x 4, Mamadou Traore, president of the cooperative, arrives, and the laborers set him through.He, a former migrant worker from neighboring Burkina Faso, is the absolute authority on COOPROYA: a cocoa cacaco empire of some 2,500 farmers, of whom 701 are now certified by Rainforest Alliance.

“I am a father to these people,” says the old wealthy farmer, and as long as he is around the cooperative seems indeed one big happy family, but there are those that murmur under their breath.About the bonus of 300 000 Euro for example, recently paid by buyers in exchange for the good harvest of 2011. Where the bulk of that money is spent nobody knows.  23 000 Euro was spent on the construction of a clinic at the cooperative, but it has not opened yet.

Konate’s colleague, Ali Ouattara (49), is milder: “Any amount Traore wants me to pay out as” bonus “I find best. I’m not complaining, he’s just the boss. It is too little, but who am I? “” He is the chairman, he decides, “says his colleague, Vassiriki Bamba (53).

Traore himself is outraged by the remarks of his fellow farmers. “They may be jealous. My management is fine. Why am I not openly accused in the meetings we have, but behind my back? ”

Also in Gonate, 250 km northwest of COOPROYA, dominates the President. Fulgence N’Guessan speaks about the success of the cooperative, Kavokiva, with more than 5,000 cocoa farmers the largest cooperative in the region. The company is Fair Trade certified and has a production capacity of 17,000 tonnes of cocoa annually, customers include the Hema, Albert Heijn and Verkade.

Kavokiva has an elementary school, a clinic, two wells, three hand water pumps and a literacy program. But here too there is complaining about opaque financial policies and lack of promised amenities. “There are only two nurses for thousands of people in the clinic. You stand in line for hours and then you still may not get help,” says Leonard Konate (41).
Additionally, the pumps are all broken, the ambulance has since the acquisition shown defects and the roads here are not repaired, thought there would have been enough money. “Hand pumps are not helping. We need a water tower. The president needs to invest our money in it, “says N’Cho Elloh (28).

Ahmed Fofana (36) explains that President N’Guessan makes many travels, since he says he has major conferences on agriculture and economy to attend. “But we do not see result of all that commuting. Maybe he did nothing more than shopping, “he says. “We never see him,” adds a colleague. “Since we have an office in Abidjan, the capital, he lives there.”

Like his colleague Traore of COOPROYA N’Guessan is also unhappy about the allegations. “I do not travel for pleasure. The people who criticize me have to think back to the past, how it was when their children did not go to school and there was no health care. ”

In response to questions about spending on the cooperatives, certifiers Rainforest Alliance and Max Havelaar / Fair Trade say that they do indeed check the accounts for projects and farmers, if they have complaints, can express these at meetings of the cooperative . It does not amaze commodities expert Ousmane Attai, in Abidjan, however, that cocoa farmers find it difficult to publicly protest. “Their harvest is all that counts. As long as they get paid for their harvest, they will not complain. They don’t know the letter of the contracts and have no idea that what happens here, is actually mismanagement. ”

The mighty certifiers and buyers, so it seems to the farmer at the base, are not neutral but ‘friends of the boss. ” Most workshops and brochures tell  farmers that there is only one way: the way of the cooperatives. “They can participate as a member of a cooperative, if they meet the standards (of sustainability, SK / EC) requirements,” says Bram Verkerke at Solidaridad. And on the cooperative, the chairman rules.

On whose account the rule has been pushed that at least three “influential” farmers should be part of the team of five people that should regulate certification, and that this team then remains boss, no one knows, not at COOPROYA, not at Kavokiva and not on the third cooperative we visit, COOPADI in Divo, in southwestern Ivory Coast. But all the farmers we spoke to confirm that this is the practice. They think that makes sense. In the cocoa region every child knows that buyers prefer to deal with the larger, richer farmers, as they can guarantee a minimum annual production.

Within the framework of the cooperatives a farmer is able to get a good price for his crop, although that price increase might have come through without certification as well.  The demand for cocoa in the world continues to rise. This ensures that, as an additional problem, even local, smaller exporters get stuck. “Before, I sold my crop to a local company, but they aren’t there anymore,” says Attoungbre Kouakou (42), who owns two hectares of cocoa land in Daloa. Kouakou is now forced to harvest for a pittance to sell to an intermediary. He would like to sell to the world, but he must have a label. “And I can not pay, “he says. Labels are expensive because they are based on research and an audit. It costs sometimes thousands of dollars.

The certifiers indicate that the cost of a label in cooperatives is distributed among all members, so the costs for each farmer individually are minimal, but it is for Kouakou back to square one: you can only connect to a cooperative if you meet the ‘standards’ requirements.

Small farmers often can not conduct business throughout the year. They are dependent on seasonal employment, hiring temporary laborers for the harvest. The minimum requirements for the labeling shall also apply to seasonal workers-another requirement where small farmers-employers, often no more than family, find impossible to meet. Also, requirements for (a ban) on child labor and certain pesticides can to the average plantation village hardly be observed.

So peasants like Attoungbre Kouakou are caught in a vicious circle: the more the desired label is beyond their reach, the poorer they are in increasing competition with the cooperatives, and by the forced sale of crops to intermediaries. This causes that they pay their (seasonal) workers still less and that they are forced to rely on the help of their children. “Ultimately,” says Kouakou, “I will be forced to sell my land to the cooperatives.” Where he and his family than must live, he knows not.

On the plantations, the question whether small farmers are helped by the training projects that come with the labels, is often answered negatively. “There are Farmer Field Schools, where we are trained in production techniques,” said Doh Mekapeu, cocoa farmer in Yakasse Attobrou. “But I went only twice. The school is 40 miles from my plantation. And I have no motorbike. “Other farmers in the region do not speak French, the language of instruction in schools.

“The sector must nevertheless be sustainable”

“Of course you will always have leaders. You have also those who are left behind, “says Jeroen Kroezen of Solidaridad, a development organization that works with labels. “We encourage all farmers to organize themselves in cooperatives.” But that is according to smaller farmers not easy. “Well, the sector must nevertheless be sustainable. A giant like Mars, the largest buyer of the world by 2020 will only buy sustainable chocolate. “” It is indeed not only the sales price that farmers get, “says Marcel Clement of Rainforest Alliance. “Farmers have to switch to sustainable techniques otherwise there will be no more cocoa. We have plans for more Farmer Field Schools, where local languages are spoken, and we will be delivering motorcycles to trainers, so that the farmers can be reached.” Clement recognizes the problem of social tensions between rich and poor farmers. “We are also working on creating more choices for farmers, so that they also in their village can establish a sustainable project.”

Ellie Tak of Fair Trade Original, importer of products bearing the Max Havelaar label, is willing to reflect on ‘dilemmas’. “Of course it happens that you think you know what is going on, but then new information indicates that it is different. Then you adjust again. A debate about this is a good thing, “says Tak.

By Selay Kouassi & Evelyn Groenink –

18 February 2012

1) All names of farmers have been changed to protect their safety.
2) In the last phase of writing this article, in which various parties in Ivory Coast as well as in the Netherlands were asked to comment, several of our sources and Selay Kouassi himself were threatened.

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