How Bloomberg Found Children Picking Fair-Trade Cotton

Victoria’s Secret Revealed in African Child Labor
Clarisse Kambire, 13, a child laborer, left, and a fellow child laborer carry wicker baskets full of hand-picked fair-trade organic cotton back to the farmer's store house after a day's labor in fields near Benvar, Burkina Faso. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

By Cam Simpson

Markets link people around the world in unexpected ways. We all know that. Seeing it up close is something else.

Last year, when cotton prices reached their highest level since the U.S. Civil War, we went looking for those human connections and the consequences.

Cotton's supply chain stretches from the hands of some of the world's poorest people, including millions of children, to the clothes worn by most everyone in the world's richest countries. It's also used in unexpected places (including car tires).

Child labor was of special interest for me and my editors as we began discussing the historic market. The U.S. Department of Labor said cotton was produced with child labor or forced labor in more nations than any commodity besides gold. Separate nation-by-nation crop estimates showed production increases globally would be driven by the same countries where child labor in cotton was a serious problem.

Five countries deserved special attention. The U.S. prohibits the use of taxpayer money to buy cotton from Benin, China, Tajikistan, Uzebekistan and Burkina Faso because of problems with forced and child labor.

Small and desperately poor, landlocked Burkina Faso is one of Africa's biggest cotton producers. The government there was pushing last year for a huge boost in its largest cash crop and second-largest source of export dollars. Based on telephone interviews and extensive research, Burkina Faso seemed like a good place to start our field work about how the market might affect children.

Along the way, we also wondered what share of record prices would go to poor African farmers, compared to cotton companies and European commodities firms that helped shape their fortunes.

With my Paris-based colleague Alan Katz, we started reporting on that question before conflict erupted in Burkina Faso over the fairness of the price farmers were getting for their cotton in what looked to be a record year.

I traveled to West Africa in May and June, the planting season, to watch the struggle unfold. Farmers protested on two sides of the country as the government tried to calm them in order to boost production. Alan and I produced an in-depth story on it for Bloomberg, showing the drastically different fates of a U.S. and a Burkinabe farmer.

But there was another mission on that trip: interviewing knowledgeable people across the country on the status of child labor and child trafficking in cotton fields.

I started on the ground, literally crisscrossing Burkina Faso three times, first renting a 4x4, then a used Mercedes that broke down, then a working one that nearly ran dry of fuel because of unrelated trouble across the country's southwest. (Rioting soldiers fired weapons in the air and looted shops in Bobo Dioulasso, shutting down fuel shipments within miles of the nation's second-largest city.)

There would be two more trips last year totaling almost four weeks in September, October and November. In my reporting, I found even Burkinabe cotton produced under purportedly ethical conditions was supported by forced child labor. We also obtained a copy of an unpublished 2008 study co-sponsored by the national growers union, which runs the organic and fair-trade program in the country. The report showed there were potentially vulnerable foster children on cotton farms across the country that were certified as fair trade. We started visiting farms.

Along the way, we found a girl who called herself Clarisse Kambire in the small village of Benvar. Briefly a promising student at the local school, she had the muscular hands of a field laborer by the time I met her. I also met other foster children like her who were forced to work on the plot next to hers. Fewer than 20 farmers participated in the organic and fair-trade program in the village. Those growers were open about the work children performed, precisely because they didn't know they were doing anything wrong -- a consequence of the lack of training the program was supposed to provide.

I won't reprise the tragedy of her life here, suffice to say that she was dumped in Benvar with an older cousin after being shuttled back-and-forth across the Ivory Coast border following the divorce of her mother and father.

Her mother had long ago moved to a remote village, which was accessible only on foot, by bicycle, or motorcycle. I hired two drivers with motorbikes and we set off Oct. 5 to find her.

After debriefing the mother's own family in the village of Benvar, and with a local guide and translator, we rolled down a dried creek bed and through narrow trails cutting across fields of millet and corn. We stopped at settlement after settlement and questioned farmers about which way to go. It took several stops to find her. This is what reporting looks like in rural West Africa.

When we did find her, the small farm where Teonbar Hien lives was teeming, as you'll hear on the recording below. Her new husband is polygamous. Children were everywhere, as were screeching farm animals.

After the formalities of a West African introduction, we said we wanted to talk to her about her daughter, Clarisse.

Clarisse is dead, the mother told us.

Come again?

My daughter Clarisse is dead, she explained.

I was perplexed. I'd already spent a great deal of time with Clarisse in Benvar by that point. What did she mean?

She laughed about my confusion more than once, but she also understood where it was coming from: She had a daughter named Clarisse who died in Ivory Coast more than a decade ago.

The girl in the village of Benvar we'd met was known to her family as ``pree-pree,'' a somewhat derogatory name in her native tongue, Dagara, that the child hated. So the girl gave herself a new name, the name of her dead sister.

Both the girl's parents -- the mother and her ex-husband, who lives in Ivory Coast -- told us that ``pree-pree'' never got a birth certificate of her own.

We spent more than 30 minutes carefully untangling these details. Here are consecutive excerpts in which you can hear some of this process unfolding.

Only a few details of this made it into our final story Dec. 15. At the time, it didn't seem significant. She had no birth registration, which is common across West Africa, and everyone in her life called her ``pree-pree'' or Clarisse. An explanation as to how that happened was deemed unimportant, confusing for readers and got edited out of earlier drafts.

Then last week, Fairtrade International, the Bonn-based organization that certified the cotton, said a birth certificate showed Clarisse wasn't a child. Limited Brands said it had seen one saying she was actually a 21-year-old woman.

No one who came into contact with her believed she was 21, but we took these claims seriously. It didn't take long, however, to figure out that the purported birth certificate was for someone who was dead. We went back and reviewed the earlier drafts of the story, had the Oct. 5 interview with the mother retranslated and reconfirmed, and we hunted down the father in Ivory Coast and interviewed him. He told us the same thing the mother told us: Clarisse is dead and ``pree-pree'' self-adopted that name.

We also had someone return to the mother's village and we interviewed her again. She reconfirmed what she had initially told us Oct. 5.

Answering the complaints about our report isn't the only reason this backstory matters. It's also important because, as the United Nations Children's Fund, or Unicef, has argued for years, unregistered children are vulnerable to exploitation, can be denied an identity and can be shut out of society.

Just like Clarisse.

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-0- Jan/13/2012 18:20 GMT
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