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Not-so-sweet indulgence

Forgetful admirers have a new, more principled reason for not giving chocolates on Valentine's Day.

February 14, 2007

LEONARDO DICAPRIO hasn't yet turned up in a movie about Blood Chocolate, but as valentines from coast to coast open heart-shaped boxes of bonbons today, they might give some thought to an industry that is nearly as harmful to human rights in Africa today as the diamond trade was a decade ago.

About 70% of the world's cocoa is grown in West Africa, with Ivory Coast accounting for about 40%. Just as blood diamonds helped finance some of Africa's most brutal wars, cocoa helps subsidize political instability and bloodshed in Ivory Coast. But chocolate's bitter aftertaste comes from the fact that the industry is a magnet for child slavery.

One of the sad facts of life in West Africa is that poor parents sometimes sell their children into indentured servitude, in some cases selling a year of slave labor for about the same price as a large box of See's nuts and chews. Children as young as 9 are taken from their homes to work in the cacao fields, with frequent whippings, no schooling and no family contact.

A 2002 report by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture said 284,000 children labored in West Africa's cocoa industry, 200,000 of them in Ivory Coast. Not all of them are slaves -- some are just kids helping out on the family farm. The difficulty of identifying the bad guys complicates efforts to curb child trafficking.

There's no reason to throw away your Valentine's chocolates. Not only is a consumer boycott impractical, it would probably do more harm than good because West Africa's economy is reliant on cocoa, and anything that hurts the industry would just worsen the desperation that drives people to sell their children. One way to be socially conscious without going through chocolate withdrawal is to seek out Fair Trade chocolate.

There has been talk about certifying cocoa producers who agree not to use child labor, but it has gone nowhere. It's unclear whether confectioners are failing to make a good-faith effort or are simply stymied by the difficulty of certifying far-flung cocoa producers in countries as violent and unstable as Ivory Coast. Certification helped clean up the diamond industry and could be effective, but more pressure will probably have to be brought to bear on the big chocolatiers before it becomes a reality in the cocoa trade.

Meanwhile, those who already feel guilty enough about indulging in high-calorie treats without adding child exploitation to the mix can always go with vanilla.

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