Children working on Ivory Coast's cocoa farms carry out dangerous and difficult tasks but are mostly helping their parents, according to a government study which denied accusations of child slavery on the farms.
The study, published at the weekend, responded to concerns expressed by foreign governments and international organizations which have said thousands of children are toiling on cocoa farms in the world's No. 1 cocoa producer.
A 2002 survey by the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture said 284,000 children were working in dangerous conditions on West African cocoa farms, mainly in Ivory Coast.
The concerns have led to heavily-publicized campaigns by some rights groups calling for boycotts of "blood chocolate" or other goods produced by "child slaves" on West African cocoa plantations.
"We didn't find slaves on farms. We found children working with their parents," said Amouan Acquah Assouan, a senior member of an Ivorian government committee that monitors child labour in the cocoa sector.
The committee's pilot study surveyed 184 children involved in cocoa production from 120 households in three rural districts between April and July when the second smaller annual harvest is under way. It found nearly half did not attend school.
The study showed most of the children performed tasks defined as forms of dangerous child labour by an international convention and Ivorian law: carrying heavy loads, burning brush, or applying chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Most had suffered pains or eye and skin irritation.
Mr. Assouan said changing farmers' ideas was the biggest task. Many of them grew up cultivating cocoa and see nothing wrong with putting their own children to work to prepare them to take over the farm, even if that means they cannot attend school.
"Things have been this way for generations and you can't change that overnight," Mr. Assouan added. "The cause of this is farmers' ignorance and illiteracy ... once they understand the risks to their child, they are ready to change."
The survey will be extended to at least half of the country's cocoa zones as part of efforts to comply with a U.S.-proposed July, 2008, deadline for Ivory Coast and neighbouring Ghana to show they are working to ensure their cocoa is not being produced by child labour in its worst forms.
Both countries say they expect to meet the deadline.
U.S. legislators could impose a ban on Ivorian or Ghanaian cocoa purchases if monitoring and corrective schemes are not in place.
Of the three localities surveyed, the nearest secondary school was 12 kilometres away and Mr. Assouan said opening more rural schools was another key to ending child labour.
During peak harvest times, some children were sent down from neighbouring Mali or Burkina Faso to work on relatives' farms, but an unknown number were also sold by their parents to traffickers who profit from supplying cheap labour.
Nearly all the children in the survey were related to the head of the farm household and more than two thirds were their own children.
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