Youths taste protest at candy trade show

By Stephen Franklin
Thursday, June 9, 2011

Ever so patiently Nina Clark edged her way to the front of
the crowd so she could say a few words about chocolate and
child workers in West Africa.

Her voice was determined. "It is not right," said the
10-year-old fourth grader. "Children can't go to school
because their parents aren't paid enough."

Along with a number of fellow fourth-graders from the
Inter-American Magnet School on Chicago's North Side, she
took part in a small rally Monday aimed at getting the
attention of some of the thousands of buyers attending the
All Candy Expo, which runs through Thursday at McCormick
Place.

The youngsters, who have been studying the rain forests of
Africa and Latin America, along with representatives of
several Chicago-based unions and religious groups, called
on candymakers to increase the income of cocoa farmers by
buying so-called fair-trade chocolate.

With higher prices, the farmers will no longer abuse child
workers nor keep them in slavelike conditions, they said.

To increase the producers' share of profits, the fair
trade movement advocates minimum prices, credit
availability and business relationships directly with
farmer cooperatives, avoiding middlemen.

The force behind the rally was Global Exchange, a San
Francisco-based group that hopes to cash in on consumers'
concern about Third World workers' conditions.

Saying a slew of firms that make products ranging from
T-shirts to rugs have changed the way they do business
overseas because of consumer pressure, they hope to spark
a similar change for cocoa farmers.

"That's what happened with Starbucks, and everyone else
followed," said Jason Mark, a Global Exchange worker.

Indeed, since Starbucks decided in September 2000 to sell
fair-trade coffee, a number of competitors have jumped on
the bandwagon. Similarly, many college campuses now offer
fair-trade coffee, the result of recently organized
student fair-trade groups.

Under the plan proposed by Global Exchange and allied
groups, the chocolate manufacturers would begin by buying
5 percent of their products from farmers who have been
certified by recognized groups as selling products that
meet fair-trade goals.

Officials of the National Confectioners Association, the
U.S. candy industry's major voice and the sponsor of the
trade show in Chicago, could not name a major American
chocolate manufacturer that sells fair-trade chocolate.
And the group does not think fair trade is a good fit for
the industry.

Susan Smith, a spokeswoman for the association, said the
industry prefers a monitoring system that would watch out
for abusive practices and support schools that would teach
farmers how to farm as well as how to treat their workers.

With the support of the world's chocolate manufacturers,
such a plan was agreed on in 2001 and is supposed to take
effect next year.

The problem with the fair-trade approach, she said, is
that it would reach only a small number of the 1.5 million
cocoa farming families in West Africa, where most of the
world's cocoa is grown.

Lilliana Esposito, a spokeswoman for Masterfoods USA, the
parent company of M&M/Mars, one of the nation's major
chocolate companies, said the firm does not think the
fair-trade route is the right road.

Not only would it be difficult to organize farmers into
fair-trade cooperatives, she said, but such a system would
also create an artificial price for chocolate.

A better solution, she said, would be teaching farmers to
be more efficient.

Global Exchange thinks that efficiency is not the problem,
but basic fairness. The group says some farmers earn only
5 percent of the profits from their cocoa products.

How much exploitation is involved in the world's
production of cocoa is a matter of debate.

While the U.S. State Department said in 2000, for example,
that thousands of children, as young as 9 years old, have
been forced to work on West African cocoa plantations,
industry officials cite a recent study that shows the
problem is not as severe in parts of West Africa.

Whatever the problem, the long-term solution, according to
fair-trade supporters such as Global Exchange, is to boost
farmers' profits. By raising farmers' income year after
year, the industry will reduce the economic insecurity
that drives them to abuse youngsters, said Mark of Global
Exchange.

And, as in the case with the coffee companies, he
predicted that chocolate manufacturers would eventually
come around. Meanwhile, his group's strategy, he said,
will remain the same: targeting students and teachers like
those at the Inter-American School--chocolate consumers
who identify with the plight of child workers.

Erica Clark, who was on hand for the presentation by her
daughter Nina outside the Hyatt-Regency Chicago Hotel,
where many visitors to the All Candy Expo are staying,
said the issue caught on with the youngsters since they
have been studying conditions in rain forests. "They
learned about how children are treated and they are real
concerned about it," she said. "It is ironic that a
product that is sold and marketed to children is made on
the backs of children."

- -
Top cocoa producers
Percent of world cocoa
production 2003/2004*
Ivory coast 40.3%
Ghana 16.1
Indonesia 14.6
Brazil 5.6
Nigeria 5.5
Source: World Cocoa Foundation
*Projected