WASHINGTON -- Global justice advocates are urging U.S.-based companies that profit from chocolate and gold sales on Valentine's Day to do more to help the people and the environment where the key ingredients for their goods are originally produced.
A coalition of human rights and development groups, led by California-based Global Exchange, is meeting Friday with executives at the headquarters of M&M/Mars at the company's headquarters near Washington, D.C. to ask them to start selling Fair Trade-certified chocolate--so that West African cocoa farmers won't need to use abusive child labor to make an adequate living.
The meeting is part of a national day of action designed to press the nation's biggest manufacturer of chocolate products to buy its cocoa beans from farmer cooperatives that prohibit abusive practices and provide their members with a minimum price per pound.
"For two years, M&M/Mars has refused to respond to the growing outcry for Fair Trade Certified chocolate from thousands of concerned consumers and cocoa producers alike," said Global Exchange's Fair Trade organizer, Melissa Schweisguth. "We are representing the voices M&M/Mars has ignored for too long, and demand a concrete plan for immediately purchasing Fair Trade Certified cocoa."
The coalition includes Oxfam America, the International Labor Rights Fund, Co-op America, the American Friends Service Committee, Free the Planet, and the RUGMARK Foundation USA.
Oxfam meanwhile, along with Earthworks/Mineral Policy Center, is using Valentine's Day this year to launch a new consumer campaign, entitled "No Dirty Gold," that is intended to improve the way gold is mined, bought and sold.
The two groups have targeted the gold jewelry market, because gold mining is one of the most environmentally destructive industries operating anywhere in the world. The campaign features distribution in front of jewelry and watch stores--including high-priced boutiques along mid-town Manhattan's Fifth Avenue--of Valentine's cards bearing the message, "Don't tarnish your love with dirty gold."
The cards note that the production of one gold ring can generate some 20 tons of mine waste that damages the environment and the health of gold-mining communities.
"Gold doesn't seem so shiny when you consider the colossal damage gold mining inflicts," said Payal Sampat, International Campaign director of Earthworks. "We're asking consumers to consider the real cost of gold and enlisting their help to put an end to mining practices that endanger people and ecosystems."
Both campaigns reflect the growing realization among activist groups that consumer pressure on retailers in global industries can be a powerful source of leverage for improving conditions in areas where their goods are grown or produced. In the last decade, an increasing number of retailers have signed on to codes of conduct that require them to monitor, either directly or through independent organizations, working or environmental conditions to ensure compliance.
Concern about child labor in cocoa production has grown since reports that thousands of West African children were being forced to work on cocoa farms in West Africa surfaced several years ago in the western media. West Africa produces roughly two-thirds of the world's cocoa beans.
The United States is the world's largest importer of cocoa products by far, consuming annually more than three billion pounds of chocolate.
In the face of consumer pressure and the threat of Congressional action, North American and European manufacturers agreed to launch the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) to address the problem of child labor by working with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local governments on programs to monitor and enforce international bans on child and forced labor in West Africa.
While the move was hailed as a major breakthrough by the International Labor Organization and several NGOs, the coalition led by Global Exchange concluded that the ICI does not go far enough.
They are convinced that the key to tackling the child labor in West African cocoa fields lies as much, or more, with ensuring that farmers are paid a fair price for their cocoa. The answer, in their view, lies with persuading the big companies to buy Fair Trade cocoa.
Fair trade cocoa is produced by cooperatives whose operations are certified by Fairtrade Labeling Organizations (FLO) as complying with certain standards. Fair Trade cooperatives must be democratically organized and non-discriminatory; they must prohibit abusive child labor and maintain a "social fund" used by the community to improve living conditions and crop diversification and environmental quality.
The cooperatives realize savings by selling directly to fair-trade buyers that guarantee them a minimum price per pound without relying on middlemen. Some 42,000 cocoa farmers and their families are currently involved in eight Fair Trade cooperatives in Ghana, Cameroon, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, and Ecuador.
While Fair Trade coffee has made major progress in penetrating the U.S. market--and is now being sold to big manufacturers including Starbucks, Sara Lee, and Procter & Gamble--since 1999, Fair Trade cocoa was introduced to U.S. consumers less than two years ago and is currently sold only by small companies in the U.S. Bigger companies like M&M/Mars, however, have ignored Fair Trade cocoa, preferring instead to buy cocoa from traditional commodity brokers, a practice that the NGOs say serves only to perpetuate conditions that have impoverished small farmers and worsened labor conditions in recent years.
The impact of a decision by M&M/Mars, with annual sales of about $16 billion a year, to begin buying some of their cocoa from Fair Trade producers would give an enormous boost to the system, according to Global Exchange, which said they were hopeful Friday's meeting could produce a breakthrough. The group noted that the three private owners of the company are each worth some US$10.4 billion.
Activists in the "No Dirty Gold" campaign also draw from the experience of recent consumer efforts to end sweatshop labor and promote Fair Trade coffee, and, like those campaigns, will emphasize the involvement of students on college campuses. Unlike the Fair Trade chocolate campaign, Earthworks and Oxfam are calling on consumers to reduce their consumption of the metal, as well as urging companies that sell gold to press their suppliers to improve their environmental and human-rights records.
The organizers stress that, in addition to the environmental damage caused by gold mining, the industry has become increasingly mechanized with the result that it employs only a tiny percentage of the global workforce.
In addition to the waste it produces--U.S. mines generate an amount equivalent in weight to nearly nine times the trash produced by all U.S. cities and towns combined--metals mining globally consumes seven to ten percent of the world's total energy.
A study titled "Dirty Metals: Mining, Communities and the Environment," released with the campaign, details many of the environmental and human rights abuses that have become associated with gold mining (www.nodirtygold.org).
Copyright 2004 OneWorld.net