Cacao flower inside

The cacao industry has always struggled with human rights concerns related to the farming and  harvesting of cacao. As a solution to this issue, the Harkin-Engel Protocol was created to encourage eight of the largest chocolate conglomerates to better the industry as a whole.

This blogpost is the second in a series of three parts highlighting the story of the Harkin-Engel Protocol.

If you haven’t already read The Cruel Side of Chocolate & Cacao: Part 1, read it here.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol, at first, seemed to be a great solution for the human rights issues within the cacao industry. However, the flaws of this agreement were revealed quite quickly.

One flaw was that the agreement did not specifically commit the industry to ending ALL child labour in cacao production. Instead, committed parties were only responsible for eliminating the ‘worst forms’ of it. This left the definition of ‘worst’ up to the same companies that profited from the dark side of the cacao industry that the Protocol was trying to eliminate – a biased position that shouldn’t have been ignored. 

Another key issue with this agreement is that it was voluntary AND non-binding. Committed parties could sign the protocol, but not actually make any concrete changes to get closer to the end goal (spoiler alert – this is exactly what happened). The cacao companies weren’t being pushed by anyone to pursue eliminating these ethical practices, and customers were still buying their products as normal, so they, understandably, weren’t motivated to reach the Protocol’s goals.

Cacao fruit

Given these issues, the original Harkin-Engel agreement proved to be too ambitious, and not much (if any) headway was made within those seven years. As a result, an extension was granted with modifications to the Protocol. 

In 2008 it was found that very little had been done to move closer towards the goals outlined in the original agreement. An amended Protocol was created with the updated goal of reducing the worst forms of child labour by 70% across the cacao sectors of Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire, by the year 2020. Most of the world’s cacao is grown in these areas and they count for over double the yield of the rest of the world’s cacao farms, combined.

Meanwhile, cacao profits were still rising. A typical cacao farmer at this time is said to have been earning a poverty wage of only $1000 per year, while their lack of rights and negotiation power meant little room for improvement. Furthermore, although organizations like Fair Trade and Rainforest Alliance promote the mission and vision of ‘changing the cocoa business for the better in a number of ways’, they aren’t quite making the impact that they set out to do.

These organizations have pledged to enforce a minimum price for cacao goods as a safeguard against market price drops. However, there is no way to guarantee that this extra consumer cost actually trickles its way back down to the farmers themselves. Oftentimes this extra cost just ends up lining the pockets of the corporations who have been profiting in the first place. Rainforest Alliance have increased their minimum price to $2600 per tonne and Fairtrade have increased their price to $2400 per tonne, but the average farmers wage hasn’t increased.

We are now in the year 2022 and child slave labour is still a very real problem despite bringing in a lot of money. In the 2019/2020 season, over 2.8 million tonnes of cacao were generated in West Africa and on the Cote d’Ivoire. That’s a lot of cacao being farmed under unfair and unethical conditions. There IS ethical cacao being processed out of Africa, but sadly this just isn’t the norm.

In 2021, human rights group International Rights Advocates filed a federal class action lawsuit against chocolate conglomerates (and Harkin-Engel signees) like Nestle, Mars, and Hershey. They alleged that these companies were complicit in child trafficking and forced child labor, and highlighted that they continue to profit from cheap cacao harvested by child slavery.

In response to this accusation a Nestle spokesperson made a statement that child labor “goes against everything it stands for,” and noted the company’s policies against child labor use and its “dedication to ending it.”

But, in the same year the supreme court also ruled on a case where six African men sought damages from Nestle USA and Cargull for being required to work long hours on Ivorian cocoa farms and being forced to sleep in locked shacks at night. 

The attorneys on this case argued that the companies should have better monitored their cocoa suppliers in West Africa, where about two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown and child labor is widespread. But, the undecided issue is whether international plaintiffs have the right to sue American companies in U.S. courts for wrongs that were committed through their overseas supply chains.

The case was dismissed before a final decision was made, but it still begged the question – who’s fault is it for unfair treatment in cacao harvesting and sourcing?

The chocolate companies argued that the African traffickers and farmers should be the ones to blame (of course they did), but we can’t help but wonder where the line gets blurred when profits are at stake. 

As a multi-billion dollar company who purchases cheap cacao,  it  should be the responsibility of the company to ensure that your products are sourced ethically. And if not, then how will this issue ever end?

Fortunately, all hope is not lost. There are many things we can do as consumers (and as small chocolate businesses) to help mend the deep scarring that has been left on this industry.

Learn more in the last part of this three-part blog series, coming soon!


Living Lotus- Audrey

Audrey is the founder of Living Lotus Food & Nutrition Inc. a plant-based dessert and food education company in Vancouver, BC. Trained as a certified Whole Food Educator and Raw Food Chef, she is passionate about Making Health Sweet and empowering people to make better food choices. She enjoys playing in the kitchen, yoga, sewing & riding her bike in the sun.

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