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US Rep. Eliot Engel

For a decade and a half, the big chocolate companies have promised to end child labor in their industry—and have spent tens of millions of dollars in the effort. But as of the latest estimate, 2.1 million West African children still do the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa. What will it take to fix the problem?

The multinational chocolate companies are heavily dependent on West Africa. More than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region, and the vast majority of that supply comes from two countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce 60% of the global total. The two nations have a combined GDP of around $73 billion, according to the World Bank—or significantly less than Nestlé’s $100 billion in sales last year.

Yet the global chocolate business would be thrown into chaos without them. Last year, Ivory Coast alone exported nearly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa, or two-fifths of the world’s production. And demand for chocolate is going up, as a growing number of consumers in countries like China and India have more disposable income.

The price of cocoa surged 13% in 2015 even as prices for most raw materials were dropping. Meanwhile the average farmer in each country still lives well below the international poverty line

The media coverage of child labor attracted the attention of U.S. politicians, who pressured the industry to tackle the issue. Former Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa, and Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, pushed the big chocolate makers to agree to eradicating the worst forms of child labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 182, by July 1, 2005. The deadline for meeting the goals of the Harkin-Engel Protocol was then pushed back to 2008, then 2010—and then it was really extended. The industry is now working on its pledge in 2010 to reduce child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana by 70% by 2020.