At the end of September 2018, Michel Arrion was appointed Executive Director of the ICCO. Ethics and sustainability are the main priorities of the flourishing cocoa sector. Michel Arrion shared his vision of working with Glo.be.
What are the missions of the ICCO (International Cocoa Organization) of which you have recently become Executive Director?
ICCO was established in 1973, under the auspices of UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). It brought together the main cocoa-producing and cocoa-consuming countries, with the initial mission of regulating markets, prices and stocks. But this role was quickly abandoned, and the organisation limited itself to an intergovernmental dialogue role, and above all as a provider of statistics.
My ambition now is to make it dynamic again, among other things by creating a consultative forum which brings together the private sector and civil society. The ICCO will very probably have a more important role to play in the coming years. I am referring in particular to the work to be implemented as part of the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Because our goal is still (1) to find the most sustainable way to produce and consume cocoa, and (2) to tackle poverty by ensuring a fairer distribution of the added value among all stakeholders in the industry.
It is also important that all the producing regions are listened to. Discussions are dominated by Africa in particular. But the countries of Asia and Latin America should not be left at the margins. Cocoa production in these countries presents various advantages for the future of the industry.
In a few words, how is the cocoa market doing? What is the outlook for the future?
In Latin America, cocoa production is enjoying robust growth. These countries produce high quality beans, which are highly sought after for their aromatic qualities, especially by the major Belgian chocolate manufacturers. However, in Asia, production is declining... but still processed quantities are increasing, as Asians are importing beans for processing. If we look at the enormous potential of the Chinese market, the outlook is extremely positive once the Chinese population starts eating chocolate.
But we need to avoid the environmental damage that any uncontrolled expansion may lead to. In Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, for example, more than 90% of forests have disappeared in just a few decades. The development of the cocoa sector has obviously contributed to this deforestation.
As for production in Africa, it is still the basis of the vast majority of chocolate consumed around the world. Having said that, the outlook is not too rosy there either. In addition to ageing cocoa trees and ageing cocoa farmers, the consequences of climate change are already being felt. But nothing is inevitable. It may be the case that there is geographical relocation within African countries themselves. As such, I don't think that the crop is threatened, as it represents one of the main economic resources for the countries concerned. On the other hand, the real challenges for African producers seem more related with ethical practices.
Born in Verviers, Michel Arrion worked for 30 years at the European Commission. A lawyer by training, he has been in charge of various development missions, primarily in Africa. He is currently the Executive Director of the ICCO (International Cocoa Organization) which has been based in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) since 2017.
Could the problem of child labour in cocoa plantations be solved through the ICCO?
The cocoa sector has clearly been singled out in this respect. Within the European Parliament, discussions are currently moving towards legislation to ban the import of cocoa from countries where it is known that child labour takes place. Such a boycott would be a disaster for the people who make a living from this resource.
Personally, I think it is a little unfair to focus so much on the chocolate industry in particular. In West Africa, child labour is unfortunately a broader problem which affects other crops such as palm oil and cotton, for example, or even the entire economy. But we need to acknowledge nonetheless that in some cocoa plantations, child trafficking does actually take place. Traffickers provide farmers with children, who primarily come from Mali or Burkina Faso. The situation is very serious.
Within the ICCO, everyone is aware of the need to stamp out all forms of trafficking in human beings, with child trafficking as the priority. The countries affected by this scourge communicate their action plans at all of our meetings. The willingness is clear, but to bring about change, the large buyers must put pressure on producers. Only three or four large companies hold most of the market. They are the ones who have all the leverage. If they say they will no longer purchase cocoa if child exploitation is identified, things will change much faster than if the UN Secretary-General pounds the table with his fist.
So we come back to the question of fair remuneration for small-scale cocoa farmers?
Yes. And when you consider that there are sometimes four to five commercial middlemen before the cocoa beans harvested by small-scale farmers reach the port from where they will be exported, you have already highlighted a key problem.