– Cargill CEO Greg Page never used the words “child labor” in the 30-minute keynote address he delivered last week to the World Cocoa Foundation. Instead, he talked at length about “sustainability.”

That term has become code for big cocoa players like Cargill that are trying to stop child labor abuses on cocoa farms while keeping production of a lucrative foodstuff viable.

Government and media reports of kids forced to drop out of school — or worse, abducted and made to work without pay — have dogged the cocoa industry for more than a decade. Surveys by Tulane University researchers have documented many corporate-backed attempts to alleviate child labor issues. But those efforts have fallen well short of key goals, while hordes of children continue working on cocoa farms, some in unsafe conditions.

Cargill says solutions to child labor abuses lie in making cocoa farming more productive and profitable, then working from the inside to convince farmers and governments that they would be better off educating children than exploiting them. “Protecting children’s rights” is a tenet of Cargill’s “Cocoa Promise,” a cocoa playbook of sorts that the firm unveiled in November.

Its overarching concept is “sustainability,” the word Page used often at last week’s cocoa confab.

What exactly is sustainability? “One of the simplest definitions that I have heard and one that we have used for Cargill … is to meet today’s needs without impairing the world’s capacity to serve future generations,” Page said.

Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa believes Minnetonka-based Cargill and its big cocoa compatriots — Archer Daniels Midland, Mars, Nestlé, Hershey and others — are only partway there. Harkin was behind a 2001 congressional action, the Harkin-Engel Protocol, that’s put heat on the cocoa and chocolate companies.

“While progress has been made in combating child labor in the cocoa sector since the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed in 2001, it has not come quickly enough,” Harkin wrote in an e-mail to the Star Tribune.

On the plus side, the cocoa industry committed $10 million for remediation efforts as part of a 2010 agreement among the cocoa industry, the U.S. Department of Labor and governments of the world’s two largest cocoa producers, Ivory Coast and Ghana.

“To its credit, the industry as a whole, including Cargill, has met this financial commitment,” Harkin wrote. But given the scope of the child labor problem, more investments are needed, he added. And while companies associated with major chocolate brands have been at the forefront of the industry’s efforts, “the companies that process cocoa, such as Cargill and ADM, have been less engaged.”

Archer Daniels Midland, the Decatur, Ill.-based agribusiness giant, said in a statement that it is “committed to responsible cocoa production throughout the world. … We actively develop, support and fund several programs to help eliminate the worst forms of child labor.”

‘Empowering communities’

Cargill officials say the company is among the industry’s leading investors in the child labor fight. Cargill has spent $5 million in the past three years in Ivory Coast and Ghana on a program designed to end child labor abuse, Cargill’s sustainable cocoa manager, Taco Terheijden, said in an interview. And Cargill should soon announce a three-year extension of that initiative, which operates in partnership with CARE International.

But progress will continue to be “incremental, ” Terheijden cautioned, because Cargill’s program “is based on empowering communities so they can take control of their own future.” Job One has been increasing productivity to attack the poverty that forces children to leave school to work on cocoa farms, he said.

About 70 percent of the world’s cocoa production comes from West Africa. Unlike many types of farming — from corn in the U.S. Midwest to palm oil in Southeast Asia — cocoa growing is dominated by relatively small farms. An estimated 1.8 million children work on cocoa farms in Ivory Coast and Ghana combined.

Companies like Cargill buy cocoa from farmers — based on commodity market prices — and process it into cocoa butter and chocolate liquor. Cargill trades cocoa and sells some processed cocoa to chocolate makers. But it’s also a major producer itself.

Child labor practices in the cocoa industry came under scrutiny around 2000 after media exposés about child trafficking and slave labor. In response, Harkin and Rep. Eliot Engel of New York negotiated with governments, nonprofit groups and the world’s largest cocoa and chocolate companies, including Cargill.

The result was the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary agreement aimed at stopping the “worst forms of child labor.”

Intense scrutiny

One of the most egregious practices is trafficking children into the Ivory Coast from neighboring countries Burkina Faso and Mali, then forcing them to work on cocoa farms. Then there’s work that could harm children’s health and safety, such as spraying pesticides or wielding machetes. Working on cocoa farms isn’t supposed to interfere with a child’s education, either.

In some ways, the spotlight that fell on the cocoa business was akin to the one on the apparel industry today after a rash of deadly factory accidents in Bangladesh. The heat on cocoa hasn’t died down in the ensuing decade.

“Based on the number of e-mails I receive from what I’ll call interested parties, I would have to judge that cocoa and palm oil are the two most significant foodstuffs in the world,” Cargill’s Page said at last week’s World Cocoa Foundation meeting. (Cargill is also a big player in palm oil, an industry often criticized for environmental issues.)

“I say that because they are also the most scrutinized. The scrutiny these crops receive highlights the importance of the work that all of us have yet to do.”

Since the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed, the U.S. Labor Department has paid several million dollars to Tulane University in New Orleans to monitor child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana. In its final report in 2011, Tulane’s Payson Center for International Development said Harkin-Engel served as “a catalyst for action,” and that “there is significant evidence of [its] impact.”

Enough progress?

The cocoa industry and nonprofit groups had created child labor remediation efforts in 290 communities in the two countries, reaching about 650,000 people, the report said. Still, the cocoa industry’s funding of anti-child-labor issues had not been sufficient, the report concluded.

And the industry had fallen well short of a key goal: developing and implementing criteria that would allow companies to certify that cocoa was produced free from the worst forms of child labor.

Essentially, the Harkin-Engel Protocol failed in its goal of ending the worst forms of child labor by 2005, and its mission now is a 70 percent reduction in child labor abuses by 2020. The mixed results over the past decade call into question whether such goals can be met, Tulane concluded.

The U.S. Labor Department last fall awarded another $1.5 million to Tulane to survey the child labor landscape during the 2013-2014 cocoa harvest in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Meanwhile, Cargill is working on its “Cargill Cocoa Promise,” educating cocoa farmers in both countries.

A significant part of that training involves improving crop yields. But Cargill employees teaching production techniques have themselves been trained to recognize signs of child labor, company officials said. If the teachers find child labor, Cargill’s Terheijden said, Cargill’s reaction must be more persuasive than punitive.

“What we do not want to do is punish the community, ” he said. “You make the problem discussable. You take it out in the open so you can solve it.”

Cooperation from local leaders in each country is critical to success, and the news is good on that front. “Engagement from local governments is definitely starting to pick up,” Terheijden said. “We operate in their country, but it is [still] their country. … We have to link up with regional governments or we won’t be successful.”