Children exploited by cocoa traffickers in western Ivory Coast

Burkinabe children do backbreaking work in illegal plantations in the Mount Peko area.
 
Our Observer has witnessed Burkinabe children working and living in terrible conditions in Mount Peko national park in western Ivory Coast. These children, many of whom are around 10 or 11 years old, are treated like slaves by cocoa traffickers.
 
Mount Peko, located at the border with Liberia, is one of Ivory Coast’s main protected forests. Since 2003, it has been overrun by supporters of Amadé Ouérémi, a Burkinabe warlord that became one of the area’s largest traffickers of cocoa, diamonds, and marijuana.
 
Ouérémi had fought alongside Alassane Ouattara’s New Forces during the Ivorian post-electoral crisis of 2011. After this, a warrant was put out for his arrest for alleged crimes against humanity. In May 2013, FRANCE 24 broadcast footage of his arrest. The warlord stands accused of having ordered the slaughter of nearly 800 people in Duékoué.
 
Burkinabe youths wielding machetes in an illegal plantation on Mount Peko.
 
However, Ouérémi’s arrest did not bring law and order back to Mount Peko: the mountainous area remains lawless and illegal trade continues to thrive. In July, the Defence Ministry set a three-month deadline for all inhabitants to leave the area. Last week, the chief officer for the government office in charge of disarmament, demobilisation, and reinsertion (ADDR) called on the park’s inhabitants to “leave without a fight” by promising that those who relinquished their weapons would “not be left with nothing”. The Ivorian army is expected to move into the Mount Peko area and weed out any stragglers by the end of September.
 
According to estimates by Ivorian media, roughly 30,000 people live in illegal camps in Mount Peko’s forest.
Contributors

“These children are trapped”

Marius (not his real name) visited Mount Peko where he saw children working in illegal cocoa farms.
 
I visited several informal camps, most notably the Sokroini camp, and I can attest that 90% of the people there are children and teenagers between 11 and 20 years of age. Some of the youngest that I met were 8 or 9 years old. They are all Burkinabe, originally from cities such as Bobo Dioulasso or Koudougou in Burkina Faso; the militia leaders that run the trafficking operations also come from these areas. Other children come from southwestern Ivory Coast, notably the region of Soubré, which has a large Burkinabe presence.
 
Most of these children don’t even know who they are working for. According to militiamen I spoke with, these sites are run by Burkinabe businessmen who made a fortune in cocoa by setting up this illegal trade with the help of Amandé Ouérémi. Ouérémi’s men go find street children in Burkina Faso or ply parents by promising them money in exchange for taking away their children.
 
These pre-teen boys work using machetes.

“When I arrived, the militiamen quickly took away the machetes that the children were holding”
 
The children’s work is to pick cocoa and transport it in large baskets over very bad roads. Others are also made to gather hevea, which is used to make rubber. It’s a mountainous area with steep slopes. They often have to walk up to 40 kilometres with baskets filled to the brim with cocoa on their heads.
 
When I arrived in the camp, I saw that many of the children were wielding machetes, which are dangerous tools that children as young as they are should not be using. When they saw me, the militiamen hurriedly took away their machetes and pretended to reprimand them, telling them they should not play with such tools. They don’t want others to know they are using child labour.
 
The man on the right is seen trying to gather the machetes so that our Observer cannot film children carrying them.

Another man gathers all the machetes in order to put them away.
 
“They sleep directly on the floor, about 30 of them in seven square metres”
 
I was able to speak to some children by surreptitiously taking them aside. The oldest have been there since 2005 and have seen nothing other than Mount Peko for the last eight years. They are completely cut off from the world and obviously don’t go to school. Their salary varies according to how old they are, but a 14-year-old boy will earn on average between 75,000 and 100,000 CFA (between 114 and 152 euros) per year. They think this is a fortune, they have no notion of money.
 
Their living conditions are deplorable: they sleep all jammed together directly on the floor in makeshift shelters, up to 30 children in seven square metres. And those are the lucky ones: those who work in the fields sleep under tents made out of sticks and a tarp.
 
One of the camp’s shelters, where children sleep in extremely cramped conditions.
 
“A 12-year old-child was crying; he told me his dream was to go back to school”
 
Many children break down due to the difficulty of the work. I saw a 12-year-old child who had just brought back a cocoa basket cry from exhaustion. Between sobs, he told me that he dreamed of going back to school, where those he left behind are still studying, while he is stranded in the middle of nowhere. In fact, he did not even know where he was. He has been there for two years and has had no news from his parents. The boy has not yet mustered the courage to run away, because he knows the odds of surviving alone on Mount Peko are very slim.

What is very worrisome is that since Amadé Ouérémi’s arrest [in May], these children have been completely abandoned; some aren’t even paid anymore. They are told to wait, and during this time, they must continue to work. Since the area must be evacuated before the end of September by order of the ADDR, the militiamen told the children that they would be taken to another village, in an area even more difficult and dangerous to access. These children are trapped. If we don’t help them, they have little chance of being freed.
 
A camp chief monitors operations. Our Observer Marius took all the above photos in early September.
 
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Alexandre Capron (@alexcapron).
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