Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Ivory Coast: The truth matters

An incorrect statement in an Associated Press story that ran in The Tribune recently regarding the economy of Ivory Coast accentuates the need for Americans to realize that Ivory Coast is not just any old place (“Ivory Coast dispute leaves 2 presidents, chaos,” Dec. 5).

The statement says that the current economic wreck was caused by the 2002 to 2003 civil war. Having read about and visited Ivory Coast for the past seven years, I can categorically deny that statement. The economic wreck began much earlier.

Why does it matter? Well, perhaps the truth matters. Most of us would at least claim we’d like to know the truth.

But there’s far more to know about Ivory Coast that is sadly ignored by Americans. The next time you take a bite out of a Hershey’s, Mars or Nestle product, you are probably enjoying a piece of Ivory Coast. The next time you go trick-or-treating, Easter egg hunting, the next time you make a German chocolate cake or you enjoy a cup of hot cocoa, you are probably savoring a piece of Ivory Coast.

The fact is, about 75 percent of all American chocolate products are made with Ivorian beans and an $18 billion chocolate industry depends on them.

So, Ivory Coast matters. This is reinforced by the fortress that serves as the American embassy in Abidjan and by the fact that Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill control most of the Ivorian cocoa industry.

Another fact that Americans ignore: Child slavery and child trafficking are practiced in Ivory Coast.

Since 2000, when a British TV crew first documented these practices, there has been a rising tide of interest in the issues of how our chocolate starts. More recently, filmmaker Robin Romano and Miki Mistrati released the documentary titled “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” which shows how children are encouraged to travel south from Mali and Burkina Faso where they work on certain plantations, often unpaid.

In response to the first reports of child slavery and trafficking as well as the “Worst Forms of Child Labor,” the American and European chocolate industries established foundations to combat the problems or the issues, depending on which side of the fence you sit.

Nongovernmental organization’s such as the German UTZ have been working in Ivory Coast to encourage villages to practice good horticultural methods while discouraging use of child labor.

Since 2000, however, everyone who works in Ivory Coast, myself included, has known that the place is a ticking time bomb. Issues have remained unresolved such as: How can 60 different ethnicities along with 60 different languages coexist in a country that was manufactured by the French in the late 19th century? The North and the South are very different. Northerners are Sahel peoples and Southerners are forest dwellers.

Contrary to many newspaper reports, the unrest is not Muslim-Christian. The fact is that Abidjan, Ivory Coast’s New York City, is as much Muslim as it is Christian. And the same is true throughout the countryside.

Whether Ivory Coast survives as a country depends on people of good will. In the late 1980s, President Laurent Gbagbo, then an English professor at the University of Cocody, challenged the country’s father, Felix Houphouët-Boigny, to terminate his single-party rule.

Now, President Gbagbo’s archrival, Alassan Ouattara, has won the popular vote. President Gbagbo, together with the political cronies who have contributed to the poverty of the Ivorian cocoa farmer, seems to have forgotten his ideals.

Will Ivory Coast descend once more into violence? If so, you can bet that the weapons purchased from the Russian arms dealers will be paid for on the backs of the Ivorian cocoa farmers. And you can bet that your bite of chocolate will not only contain the blood of children, but also the taste of gun lubricant.

Tom Neuhaus is a professor emeritus at Cal Poly and the president of Project Hope and Fairness.