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Critics: Chocolate Financing Ivory Coast's Gbagbo

Human rights advocates are targeting the Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, in a campaign to force the world's chocolate makers to improve labor practices.

JOHANNESBURG (AP) - Some of the cocoa in that Valentine's Day chocolate probably came from a West African country where the man in power for a decade is still clinging to office. And activists say consumers might also think twice if they knew unpaid 5-year-olds helped produce it.

This year human rights advocates are harnessing the political crisis in Ivory Coast, the world's largest cocoa producer, to add momentum to an ongoing campaign to force the world's chocolate makers to improve their labor practices.

Supporters of the internationally recognized winner of Ivory Coast's election also have pushed for a cocoa ban in an effort to financially strangle incumbent leader Laurent Gbagbo, who the U.N. says lost the November election.

"It's clear that the taxes that come from cocoa go directly to keeping Gbagbo in power. That's why we called for an export ban and it seems to be working," said Patrick Achi, spokesman for internationally recognized winner Alassane Ouattara, who is now trying to run the country from a hotel.

Years of campaigning by "fair trade" consumers already have forced chocolate makers to sign onto to agreements to help clean up the cocoa supply chain. But little has changed in the decade since the U.S. Congress passed the Harkin-Engel Protocol to introduce a "no child slavery" label for chocolate marketed in the United States.

Some 1.8 million children aged 5 to 17 years work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana, according to the fourth annual report produced by Tulane University under contract to the U.S. Department of Labor to monitor progress in the protocol.

The report says 40 percent of the 820,000 children working in cocoa in Ivory Coast are not enrolled in school, and only about 5 percent of the Ivorian children are paid for their work.

"These companies are getting incredible profits while often the farmers are getting really pennies," said Emira Woods, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

Campaigns recently have begun targeting The Hershey Company because it is the only major chocolate producer in the world that hasn't made a commitment to use certified cocoa, activists say. Hershey's, though, says it is working to improve lives in local communities.

"Our focus is on-the-ground programs that promote sustainable livelihoods in West Africa," said Hershey's spokesman Kirk Saville. "Hershey's support for cocoa communities goes back more than 50 years. We have helped to develop more productive agriculture practices, to build educational and community resources and to eliminate exploitative labor practices."

But the Tulane University report on child labor in cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana found chocolate makers have reached less than 4 percent of cocoa-growing communities in Ivory Coast and less than 14 percent of communities in Ghana.

"The industry has invested far more in programs in Ghana, where the worst abuses are not quite as prevalent as in the Ivory Coast," said Timothy Newman, campaigns director of the Washington D.C.-based International Labor Rights Forum.

Newman also said children from the neighboring countries of Mali and Burkina Faso also continue to be trafficked to Ivorian farms, where 40 percent of the world's cocoa is produced.

Ivorian government statistics indicate that more than 37,000 children are forced to work, according to the U.N. International Labor Organization's Alexandre Soho, senior program officer for Africa on the elimination of child labor.

The industry says it has spent more than $75 million to support implementation of a cocoa certification system. However, the Tulane study found partners on the ground received only $5.5 million between 2001 and 2009, and that those working in Ivory Coast received only $1.2 million from the industry.

Activists argue that the answer is simple: pay farmers more and they will be able to afford to send their kids to school instead of to work. Most children are put to work on small family plots, often wielding dangerous tools like machetes and using hazardous substances such as insecticides.

But critics say that a chocolate boycott only hurts the farmers and their families, who are trying to make a living even if the wages are not "fair trade" ones.

"The essential problem from the very beginning, was that the large chocolate companies were hiding behind the Harkin-Engel Protocol which is an entirely voluntary agreement with no enforcement mechanism. As a result, they have been able to continually drag their feet in taking responsibility for labor rights abuses in their own cocoa supply chains," Newman said.

"Many of the initiatives developed under this process have never addressed the critical underlying issues that lead to egregious labor rights abuses like the low prices paid to cocoa farmers for their beans and the lack of negotiating power that small-scale farmers have in the global chocolate supply chain. Problems like these continue to fuel abuse."

Associated Press writer Marco Chown Oved contributed to this report from Abidjan, Ivory Coast.