Illustration: Robby Day
With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, many of us are looking for the perfect gift for our loved ones. We will soon navigate the familiar barrage of self-deprecating memes and original jokes about how the holiday was invented by a secret cabal of slimy gift card companies running shameless marketing campaigns seeking to convince us that our relationships are only worth the dollar amount we invest in them.
While it is widely known that chocolate and jewelry are among the most popular gifts purchased for Valentine’s Day, it is not as well-known that the consumption of such goods provides funding for the enslavement, murder and suffering of millions of children employed in the diamond and chocolate industries in Africa.
Chocolate and Child Labor
During Valentine’s week, it is expected that consumers in the U.S. will purchase more than 58 million pounds of chocolate, all of which uses raw cocoa of foreign origin. Most of the cocoa consumed in the U.S. is produced in West Africa, where the use of forced child labor is prominent and well-documented by non-government organizations and the international community. Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana have been leaders in this field with an estimated 1.8 million children employed in hazardous conditions in any given year.
Many of these children began their farming careers after being sold by family members at a young age or abducted by human trafficking cartels. Quite often, these cartels are also involved with commercial sexual exploitation of children and conscription of child soldiers.
Even those who entered the cocoa industry in response to the threat of starvation rather than the threat of murder, the so-called voluntary child laborers, work in grueling conditions that have been internationally condemned by the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention by the International Labour Organization. The convention defines these as any form of slavery, commercial sexual exploitation of children or work that is, by its nature, harmful towards the health, safety or morals of children.
Violations of the convention are ubiquitous in the cocoa industry. Children as young as 5 wielding machetes, chainsaws and 50-pound bags of cocoa beans, are often forced to work 80-hour weeks in the hot sun facing constant exposure to dangerous insecticides and processing chemicals. Poor performance and attempts to escape the farms are punished with lashes. Injury is common; medical care is not.
Diamonds in Demand
With diamond mining, the story is much the same. The tools used and the processes by which the goods are extracted are different, but the conditions of labor are no less dangerous. Children of the same age range are exploited under the same circumstances for the same reasons, and the punishment for failure to comply is still violence or worse.
The revenue generated by the sale of raw diamonds is often used to fund armed conflicts in war-torn regions of Africa. Diamonds mined in war zones and used to fund military insurgencies are known as blood diamonds, and the armies funded by the sale of these diamonds are often notorious for human rights violations and conscription of child soldiers. It is estimated that up to 20 percent of diamonds in the global raw diamond trade are blood diamonds. Still, it is anticipated that American consumers will spend more than $4 billion on jewelry this Valentine’s Day, a substantial portion of which will include diamonds.
What can we do?
We can make better purchasing decisions. We live in a society where we have the power and responsibility to buy products that don’t directly fund the murder and enslavement of children abroad.
If your valentine is a chocolate fiend like mine, there are plenty of companies offering chocolate made with cocoa harvested under relatively safe conditions by farmers earning a living wage. If a company is unwilling to make any kind of assurances regarding ethical harvesting, infer what you will.
But if you think that a chunk of compressed carbon is the best way to express your love, I have nothing to offer you for reconciliation. In 2003, as part of a greater international effort to combat the sale of blood diamonds, the United Nations adapted the Kimberley Process, a complex system of warranties, checks and balances that requires all buyers and sellers of rough diamonds to guarantee the diamonds they are dealing with are not blood diamonds. However, loopholes in the process and the fact that raw diamonds are practically untraceable in their origins have rendered it largely ineffective.
Ultimately, there is no guarantee that money from the diamonds we purchase, even those labeled conflict-free by the Kimberley Process, is not actually used to fund child slavery and other crimes against humanity.
The exploitation of these children will only continue as long as it remains profitable, and it will only remain a profitable venture as long as we continue to fund the exploiters. This year, let’s allow love to span beyond the confines of our personal relationships and into the lives of those we affect with our purchases. Refuse to buy unethically sourced chocolate. Refuse to buy diamonds. If your partner doesn’t appreciate it, at least your conscience will.