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In just over two weeks, Tulane University will release the results of a long-awaited, Labor Department-commissioned study of labor practices in the African cocoa industry. Plagued by allegations that it used abusive child labor and even slavery, the industry vowed to clean up its act six years ago as part of a landmark protocol spearheaded by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.). The deadline for the industry’s compliance with the Harkin-Engel protocol comes in July. How far the industry has moved toward meeting its goals is still a subject of some debate. Rosemary Gutierrez, Harkin’s foreign policy aide, says that at a meeting sponsored by the State Department in April, industry groups bluntly moved to block any effort to verify compliance with the agreement, a recollection that another attendee confirmed. But Susan Smith, senior vice president of public and legislative affairs for the National Confectioners Association, says her members never opposed monitoring. “Industry has always, always considered verification a central and absolutely necessary part of the protocol process,” she says, citing the association’s nascent agreement to partner with Verit�, an international human rights organization that specializes in verification work. Gutierrez and the protocol’s nongovernmental participants say they’re pleased that the industry is making an effort, though they’re waiting to see the fine print on the agreement with Verit�. Working out the details of the protocol, hailed by its participants as the first cooperative effort to guarantee human rights standards across an entire agricultural sector, has proved difficult. Major American commodities conglomerates and confectioners such as Cargill Inc., Hershey Food Co., and Mars Inc. have accepted varying degrees of responsibility for the labor practices of farms in their supply chains (just last week Cargill announced it has agreed to a labor monitoring plan). Unions and human rights organizations have contented themselves with pushing incremental change. And the offices of Harkin and Engel have monitored backsliders. In coming months, the strength of the protocol is going to be tested. The July 2008 deadline requires establishing a monitoring system for labor practices that covers half of West Africa’s cocoa farms. Industry groups have promised dramatic increases in funding for education and anti-poverty programs in cocoa farming communities in the coming year, and are pushing to convince Congress of their good works. The industry’s two key trade groups, the Chocolate Manufacturers Association and the National Confectioners Association, have just retained the Podesta Group to tout the merits of the industry’s approach. MORE THAN A COSMETIC FIX Of course, not everyone has chosen to participate in the protocol. Some major corporate cocoa consumers, including the cocoa-butter-dependent cosmetics industry, have simply ignored the issue. And some human rights organizations, such as the International Labor Rights Fund, have concluded that they can do more good staying independent of the protocol. For example, the group filed a 2005 suit in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Nestl�, Archer Daniels Midland Co., and Cargill on behalf of alleged former child slaves. But among protocol signatories there have been no defections as of yet. “For the time being, we’re all moving in the spirit of the partnership here,” Gutierrez says, noting that possible legislative sanctions and mandates have not been ruled out if the protocol fails. “It’s no secret that Mars has hired Patton Boggs, and they’ve been in here. It doesn’t matter who they hire; we’re still going to expect them to abide by this,” she says of the industry’s outreach on Capitol Hill. “[I]f they don’t, we’re going to have to look at other ways.” However contentious the relationship may be, it’s already on better footing than it was in 2001, when advocacy groups were issuing Valentine’s Day press releases equating chocolate with human misery. Even though huge chocolate companies like Hershey’s and Mars didn’t have exporting or processing operations on the ground in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland do, controlling a large section of the export market), they were the most easily bruised. When the prospect of the Harkin-Engel protocol came up, the companies jumped for it, even though it called for changing the labor practices of well over a million West African cocoa farms in less than four years. “The senior people I talked to, back in 2001, they would have signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. They would have signed anything,” says Peter McAllister, executive director of the Geneva-based International Cocoa Initiative, which was created to serve as a forum for the protocol and is funded by its corporate participants. “Industry didn’t have a clue of what it was supposed to do and didn’t do it very well.” Nowhere close to meeting the original 2005 deadline for a verification system, the industry bargained for a three-year extension from Harkin, Engel, and the program’s other participants. They got it, but only after taking considerable heat. “The deal that was brokered was, �You’ve started something, it’s nowhere near what we’d hope, but it does have potential,’” McAllister recalls. “This cannot be the future of a luxury commodity in 15 years.” IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL With nine months left before its new deadline, the industry is in that position again. Exactly how much it has invested in combating poverty and pernicious forms of child labor remains unclear. “We’ve been saying tens of millions of dollars,” Smith says, adding, however, that a precise number has never been calculated. McAllister, meanwhile, estimates that the ICI’s budget, which is now slightly more than $2 million, runs between 10 percent and 20 percent of the industry’s spending on socially responsible cocoa. The total has been enough to establish a number of successful demonstration projects, he suggests, but now those pilots are ready to be turned into broader programs. One test of the industry’s efforts will likely come at the end of this month, when Tulane releases its appraisal of the protocol plan. The Tulane team did not respond to requests for comment on its unpublished results, but a lengthy PowerPoint presentation produced for the protocol suggests that its members were not satisfied: The industry’s interpretation of its own obligations is “unique,” one slide states, in that it omits benchmarks, targets for investment, and even an obligation to establish a concrete certification system. Perhaps not surprisingly, a pilot survey by the team also showed evidence of a continuing child labor problem. In a limited review of two communities, the Tulane team did not find children believed to have been trafficked or in “a state of serfdom.” But in interviews with 52 children in one Ghanaian community, 26 percent reported being “forced to work,” and significant minorities claimed they had been injured in agricultural accidents, physically assaulted by adults, or exposed to hazardous environmental conditions. The Confectioners Association’s Smith says her group is waiting to see the final report and couldn’t comment before then, but she says she expects members will hit the protocol’s deadline. “We’re working very hard to meet that goal, and I think everyone’s aware of that,” she says. “The chocolate industry’s commitment goes beyond any particular milestone. We’re in it for the long haul.”
Jeff Horwitz can be contacted at [email protected].

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