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The Three Binds of the Ivoirian Cocoa Farmer

Tom Neuhaus, Department of Food Science and Nutrition, California State Polytechnic University

Figure 1

Ivoirian cocoa farmers have contributed disproportionately to the economic productivity of their country but remain handicapped because they are poor and unaware of the “value chain” that determines the price of their product. They are oblivious as to why they earn $2.00 a day while the rest of the world so enjoys the product of their beans: chocolate. In Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa grower, the dynamics of production work against individual farmers, keeping them in poverty. Such is the legacy of Côte d’Ivoire’s agricultural policies, which the Ouattara regime will have to modify if it wants to win and sustain widespread support in the country’s southern cocoa-producing regions. But why, and how might they do this?

During World War II, while African leaders were planning independence, Félix Houphouët-Boigny, a doctor’s aid, cocoa planter, and village chief, positioned himself to become the father of an independent Ivoirian state. Serving as president until his death in 1993, Houphouët-Boigny encouraged people from the northern neighboring countries of Burkina Faso and Mali to migrate south and purchase land in exchange for labor. Their efforts contributed to what became known as the “Ivoirian miracle.”

At first, Ivoirian cocoa farmers prospered; it was not unusual for them to purchase cars or trucks and to drive their beans to the nearest port. In the early 1980s, however, the price of cocoa plummeted, and a new system of trading involving two levels of middlemen and nine state taxes evolved. This set the stage for the rapid impoverishment of cocoa farmers and for what I call the "three binds” in which they subsequently found themselves.

Bind number one: bad politics. In 1993, Houphouët-Boigny’s replacement, Henri Konan Bédié, promoted the policy of ivoirité, which discriminated against the northern immigrants and migrants working in the southern cocoa fields and prevented presidential candidates from being elected if either of their parents had been born outside of Côte d’Ivoire. The policy targeted Alassane Ouattara in particular, a Jula-speaking former prime minister widely supported by Ivoirians and immigrants of northern descent and excluded from presidential elections in 1995. He is now president. The man who preceded Ouattara as chief executive, Laurent Gbagbo, a Bété-speaker from Côte d’Ivoire's western cocoa-growing region, presided over an unprecedented period of corruption and cronyism in the cocoa sector [1], [2]. The resulting cloud of distrust led to thousands of deaths and undermined farmers’ trust in the middlemen who sell their product to the international market.

Bind number two: low quality. Following advice from the World Bank, the Ivoirian government disbanded its cocoa stabilization fund—the Caisse de stabilisation (Figure 2)—as well as other state efforts intended to control cocoa prices. The government aimed to make Ivoirian beans attractive to American chocolate producers who valued low price over quality. While advantageous for immediate profit, the new focus on low price and low quality discouraged the planting of new trees, the development of hybrid varieties, and research into new cultivation methods, all of which are key for the long-term sustainability of cocoa production.

Figure 2

Bind number three: child labor. In 2000, the world discovered the link between child labor and Ivoirian cocoa (Figure 1). Côte d’Ivoire was producing 43% of the world’s cocoa beans by using the labor of children from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso to reduce costs. In 2001, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), recognizing the seriousness of the situation, pressured the American and European chocolate industries into signing the “Harkin-Engel” or “Cocoa” Protocol [3], calling for a certification system for cocoa farming to ensure the absence of child labor. Eleven years later, little progress has been made, and Ivoirian beans remain tainted by some of the worst forms of child labor and child slavery [4], [5].

Can we find a way beyond these binds? After spurring the “Ivoirian miracle” in the 1980s, can Ivorian cocoa now reverse the subsequent “Ivoirian curse?” The solution must be a structural one—difficult to attain but more permanent than any system of certification. From the American and European side, the response needs to involve a merchandising campaign to focus on the terroir of beans and chocolate, disassociating cocoa from its reputation as a cheap commodity. On the Ivoirian end, the state must encourage the exportation of smaller quantities of beans rather than the customary 24,000 kg containers. Essentially, the Ivorian cocoa industry must learn the virtues of small business. But is such a solution realistic?

It has been done before, with a similar tropical product: coffee.

Imagine cocoa, and those who cultivate it, unbound.


Figure 1. Children working on a cocoa plantation. Source: Unknown.

Figure 2. The tower of the Caisse de stabilisation building (foreground), Plateau district, Abidjan. Photo: Jean-Claude Péclet [6].


[1] Global Witness. 2007. Hot Chocolate: How Cocoa Fueled the Conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. Washington, D.C.: Global Witness (accessed May 24, 2012).

[2] Off, Carol. 2008. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New Press.

[3] Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association. 2001. Protocol for the Growing and Processing of Cocoa Beans and Their Derivative Products in a Manner That Complies with ILO Convention 182 Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor.

[4] Athreya, Bama. 2011. White Man’s “Burden” and the New Colonialism in West African Cocoa Production. Race/Ethnicity: Multidisciplinary Global Contexts 5 (1): 51-59.

[5] Mistrati, Miki and U. Roberto Romano. 2010. The Dark Side of Chocolate. Copenhagen: Bastard Film.

[6] Péclet, Jean-Claude. 2009. Une matinée à la Maison d'arrêt et de correction d'Abidjan. Le Temps, July 10 (accessed May 25, 2012) [Note: A search with this author's last name and this article's title should access an online link for this article].