After a 20-minute interview with an educator, Issouf recognizes him: he works on a cocoa plantation. He is one of 60 children picked up by the police during an operation in western Ivory Coast.
Operation “Nawa 2” was carried out in early May in the Soubré region, 400 km west of Abidjan, the large cocoa growing area. Their objective: to convince the Ivorian authorities to combat child labor in cocoa, a scourge denounced by international NGOs for 20 years.
This West African country, the world’s leading cocoa producer, and multinational chocolate companies are under pressure. Western consumers increasingly demand an ethical product, manufactured without abuse against children or damage to the environment.
A US bill, which ultimately failed, threatened Côte d’Ivoire with a boycott of its cocoa.
Issouf says he came from Burkina Faso two years ago with his father, who left after a month, leaving him with a man who he was told was his uncle, to work on a plantation.
“This is a case of trafficking,” estimates Alain-Didier Lath Mel, director of child protection at the Ivorian Ministry of the Family.
Many of the children exploited on the plantations come from Burkina Faso and Mali, neighboring countries that are poor and provide labor to the richer Ivory Coast.
According to the NORC survey from the University of Chicago in 2018-19, almost 800,000 children worked in cocoa, up from 1.2 million according to a previous study by the American University of Tulane in 2013-14.
Trafficking cases affect less than 2,000 children, according to another 2018 study carried out by the Walk Free Foundation and the NGO Vérité.
– Persecutions –
These figures are only estimates and the research methodology varies, underlines the National Committee for the Monitoring of Actions to Fight Trafficking, Exploitation and Child Labor (CNS), chaired by Dominique Ouattara, wife of the Ivorian president.
Operation “Nawa 2”, the fifth of its kind since 2009, mobilized a hundred men for two days and required a lot of preparatory and intelligence work, explains Commissioner Luc Zaka, deputy director of the criminal police.
A team of journalists, including those from AFP, accompanied the police in the Meagui area, 50 km from Soubré.
Aboard half a dozen 4x4s, they advanced along a track that winds through green fields of cocoa and rubber trees, preceded by a motorcyclist.
The convoy would stop from time to time: it would surprise the children returning from the fields with machetes or taking care of the cocoa beans that were dried in front of the houses in the villages.
Agents also scoured the fields to locate children on the plantations. Some escaped and chased them.
After four hours of intervention, they collected about twelve children and adolescents. They were taken to the Soubré children’s reception center, opened in 2018, where, like Issouf, they are cared for by educators and psychologists. Relatives pick them up the next day after a talk with the police and employees of the center.
In severe cases of abuse or forced labor, the children, generally illiterate, stay in the center for a few months. They go back to school and learn a trade: livestock, horticulture, sewing, hairdressing, blacksmithing.
Outside of operations, local child protection committees carry out work in rural areas.
– Poverty –
“Mediation with families is very important,” says Lath Mel, who sees “progress.”
According to NORC research, the schooling rate of children from cocoa-producing families has improved, from 59% in 2008-09 to 85% in 2018-19. However, the 2020 study by the Côte d’Ivoire Coffee Cacao Council (CCCI), the public body that manages these sectors, points out that only 71% of children between the ages of 5 and 17 are enrolled in schools.
Since 2019, some 2,000 children have been removed from the cocoa plantations, 200 of whom have stayed in the Soubré reception center, according to the CNS.
In addition, the Ivory Coast has been endowed with a “legal arsenal” in the last ten years, highlights the prosecutor of Soubré, Alexandre Koné, with fines and prison sentences ranging from a few months to life imprisonment for the slavery of children under 10 years of age. .
Some 300 people have been convicted of child trafficking, out of about 600 people brought to justice between 2012 and 2020, according to the CNS.
But so far this year there has only been one trial in the Soubré court – acknowledges the prosecutor – about a child trafficker sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Kouassi Kouakou Franck, 25, a resident of the village of Issakro with
the one that the AFP spoke during the operation thinks that “the children should go to school, but if the parents don’t have the means, then they stay here working.”
Lath Mel corroborates this: “Poverty is the main cause of child labor and trafficking.”
According to the World Bank, more than half of the 5 to 6 million people who make a living from cocoa live below the poverty line in Côte d’Ivoire.
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