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Sustainable cocoa

April 8, 2012

Germans love chocolate. But the labor and living conditions of cocoa planters are bad, and child labor is common. The German initiative "Forum Sustainable Cocoa" wants to change that.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Statistics say every German eats eleven kilos of chocolate per year, making Germany one of the most important markets for cocoa. Five to six million farmers in Latin America, South East Asia, and especially Africa produce 90 percent of world production of cocoa.

As much as 70 percent of the cocoa traded across the world is produced in western Africa, with Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Togo being the major exporters.

Eine Frau beißt in eine Tafel Schokolade
Germans eat 11 kilos of chocolate per person per yearImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But according to a 2009 survey conducted commissioned by the US Tulane University, in Ivory Coast and Ghana alone, more than 250,000 children work on cocoa plantations under conditions that violate both domestic laws and international rules set by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

Guaranteeting supply of high-quality cocoa

According to German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner, Germany bears a special responsibility because it is the world's second biggest cocoa processor. About ten percent of the world's cocoa crop goes to Germany, the lion's share imported from West Africa, in particular Ivory Coast.

Through the "Forum Sustainable Cocoa," initiated by the Agriculture and Development Ministries, Germany now wants to promote better conditions for cocoa production in the countries of origin. One important goal is to tackle child labor.

But economic interests also play a role in this effort. Germany wants to make sure there is a good supply of high-quality cocoa for its chocolate industry. That's why business has now got involved: The German Food Trade Association (BVL) and the Federal Association of the German Confectionery Industry (BDSI) together fund 50 percent of the forum, with the rest covered by the federal government. Administrative tasks are in the hands of the German Association for International Cooperation (GIZ).

Better training and more money

The forum is not meant to run its own projects, but bundle disparate activities that already support cocoa farmers trying to produce cocoa in a sustainable way.

"The lack of knowledge and underperformance in productivity are a core problem in cocoa farming," says the BDSI's head Torben Erbrath, explaining why one of the forum's priorities is to expand the scope of training measures that have already been set up by larger companies.

Afrika Elfenbeinküste Kakao Plantage
The German forum hopes to improve living conditions for cocoa farmersImage: AP

Cocoa farming requires specific skills and certain climate conditions. With the help of new techniques, experts believe farmers could harvest two or three times as much - boosting their income.

But the forum will also supply farmers with loans to invest in boosting infrastructure, something sorely lacking in many cocoa-producing regions. Erbrath hopes the "Forum Sustainable Cocoa" will also get small and medium sized enterprises on board as investors.

Uniform standards

Over the next few years, the BDSI wants to significantly raise the share of sustainably-produced cocoa in the chocolate sold by its members - to 50 percent by 2020 and to 70 percent by 2025.

"It's an ambitious goal," says Erbrath, "but it can be done." Two years ago, the Netherlands said they want to reach 100 percent by 2025. This is not likely to happen in Germany, says Erbrath, because Germany imports ten times as much cocoa as the Netherlands and has considerably more companies involved in production and distribution, who would all have to pull their weight.

Some say there needs to be a single, unified label for sweets that contain sustainably-produced cocoa. Today, there are three large, and several smaller, organizations that give out certificates to goods that conform to certain minimum social and ecological standards, including the Fairtrade Labelling Organization International (FLO), the Rainforest Alliance, and Utz Certified.

Fairtrade At Discount Prices

Development Minister Dirk Niebel says the forum provides a win-win situation for everybody involved. "Everybody's interests are met: government development departments, consumers, and the companies. And spreading sustainable and productive cultivation methods is crucial when trying to improve living conditions for cocoa farmers."

It would also guarantee cocoa farmers enough income to pay for their children's education and basic health care. But Niebel also sees an economic incentive for German companies. "Companies can make sustainable production their special quality trademark, which will win over consumers,“ he said.

Chocolate bars should cost more

Friedel Hütz-Adams from NGO Südwind approves of the "Forum Sustainable Cocoa" in general, but adds that there is no way around discussing prices. "If you take inflation into account cocoa prices have halved over the last fifty years," he says. "In 1980, farmers would get some $5,000 dollars (3,150 euros) per ton of cocoa. Twenty years later, this was down to some $1,200. And yet, a chocolate bar in Germany costs four times less today than what it cost in 1950."

Germany is one of the world's biggest importers of cocoa beansImage: TransFair

Hütz-Adams says farmers are incapable of defending their own interests largely because of the way power is divided in the chocolate production chain. He believes large companies like Cargill or Kraft Foods dominate the cocoa processing and chocolate manufacturing industries and therefore have a large influence on cocoa prices.

He suggests the forum should push for stabilizing world market prices at a minimum level. If all stakeholders from every stage of production and distribution sit around a table nobody, he argues, can shift the responsibility to someone else.

He also says ways have to be found to guarantee that farmers actually get paid. In some countries, cocoa farmers only receive a fraction of the export price. In Ivory Coast, for instance, farmers are left with only 50 percent. The rest of the money vanishes in an inextricable system of middlemen. That's why the forum has to cooperate closely with the countries of origin.

Kinderarbeit Afrika Elfenbeinküste Kakao Plantage
Up to 250,000 children work in cocoa production in Ivory CoastImage: AP

Representatives have already met at bilateral and multilateral levels. In March, the German government presented the launch of the forum to the International Cocoa Organization. And their Executive Director Jean-Marc Anga, together with the General Secretary of cocoa-producing countries, Nanga Coulibaly, came to Berlin in March to take part in one of the forum's first working sessions. Time will tell if they can improve living conditions for children on West Africa's cocoa plantations.

Author: Christian Ruta / nh
Editor: Ben Knight