GUIGLO, Ivory Coast —Five boys are swing-ing machetes on acocoa farm, slowly advancing against a wall of brush. Their expressions are deadpan, almost vacant, and they rarely talk. The only sounds in the still air are the whoosh of blades slicing through tall grass and metallic pings when they hit something harder.
Each of the boys crossed the border months or years ago from the impoverished West African nation of Burkina Faso, taking a bus away from home and parents to Ivory Coast, where hundreds of thousands of small farms have been carved out of the forest.
These farms form the world's most important source of cocoa and are the setting for an epidemic of child labor that the world's largest chocolate companies promised to eradicate nearly 20 years ago.
"How old are you?" a Washington Post reporter asks one of the older-looking boys.
"Nineteen," Abou Traore says in a hushed voice. Under Ivory Coast's labor laws, that would make him legal. But as he talks, he casts nervous glances at the farmer who is overseeing his work from several steps away. When the farmer is distracted, Abou crouches and with his finger, writes a different answer in the gray sand: 15.
Then, to make sure he is understood, he also flashes 15 with his hands. He says, eventually, that he's been working the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast since he was 10. The other four boys say they are young, too — one says he is 15, two are 14, another 13.
Abou says his back hurts, and he's hungry.
"I came here to go to school," Abou says. "I haven't been to school for five years now."
The world's chocolate companies have missed deadlines to uproot child labor from their cocoa supply chains in 2005, 2008 and 2010. Next year, they face another target date and, industry officials indicate, they probably will miss that, too.
As a result, the odds are substantial that a chocolate bar bought in the United States is the product of child labor.
About two-thirds of the world's cocoa supply comes from West Africa where, according to a 2015 U.S. Labor Department report, more than 2 million children were engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions.
When asked this spring, representatives of some of the biggest and best-known brands — Hershey, Mars and Nestlé — could not guarantee that any of their chocolates were produced without child labor.
"I'm not going to make those claims," an executive at one of the large chocolate companies said.
One reason is that nearly 20 years after pledging to eradicate child labor, chocolate companies still cannot identify the farms where all their cocoa comes from, let alone whether child labor was used in producing it. Mars, maker of M&M's and Milky Way, can trace only 24 percent of its cocoa back to farms; Hershey, the maker of Kisses and Reese's, less than half; Nestlé can trace 49 percent of its global cocoa supply to farms.
With the growth of the global economy, Americans have become accustomed to reports of worker and environmental exploitation in faraway places. But in few industries, experts say, is the evidence of objectionable practices so clear, the industry's pledges to reform so ambitious and the breaching of those promises so obvious.
Industry promises began in 2001 when, under pressure from the U.S. Congress, chiefs of some of the biggest chocolate companies signed a pledge to eradicate "the worst forms of child labor" from their West African cocoa suppliers. It was a project companies agreed to complete in four years. To succeed, the companies would have to overcome the powerful economic forces that draw children into hard labor in one of the world's poorest places. And they would have to develop a certification system to assure consumers that a bag of M&M's or a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup did not originate with the swinging of a machete by a boy like Abou.
Since then, however, the chocolate industry also has scaled back its ambitions. While the original promise called for the eradication of child labor in West African cocoa fields and set a deadline for 2005, next year's goal calls only for its reduction by 70 percent.
Timothy McCoy, a vice president of the World Cocoa Foundation, a Washington-based trade group, said that when the industry signed onto the 2001 agreement, "the real magnitude of child labor in the cocoa supply chain and how to address the phenomenon were poorly understood."
Industry officials emphasized that, according to the pledge made to lawmakers, West African governments and labor organizations also bear some responsibility for the eradication of child labor.
Today, McCoy said, the companies "have made major strides," including building schools, supporting agricultural cooperatives and advising farmers on better production methods.
In statements, some of the world's biggest chocolate companies that signed the agreement - Hershey, Mars and Nestlé - said they had taken steps to reduce their reliance on child labor.
Other companies that were not signatories, such as Mondelez and Godiva, also have taken such steps, but likewise would not guarantee that any of their products were free of child labor.
In all, the industry, which collects an estimated $103 billion in sales annually, has spent more than $150 million over 18 years to address the issue.
But when the businesses initially made the promise to eradicate child labor, according to industry insiders and documents, the companies had little idea of how to do so. Their subsequent efforts have been stalled by indecision and insufficient financial commitment, according to industry critics.
Their most prominent effort — buying cocoa that has been "certified" for ethical business practices by third-party groups such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance, has been weakened by a lack of rigorous enforcement of child labor rules. Typically, the third-party inspectors are required to visit fewer than 10 percent of cocoa farms.
According to the U.S. Labor Department, a majority of the 2 million child laborers in the cocoa industry are living on their parents' farms, doing the type of dangerous work — swinging machetes, carrying heavy loads, spraying pesticides — that international authorities consider the "worst forms of child labor."
A smaller number, those trafficked from nearby countries, find themselves in the most dire situations.
During a March trip through Ivory Coast's cocoa-growing areas, journalists from the Post spoke with 12 children who said they had come, unaccompanied by parents, from Burkina Faso to work on cocoa farms.
While the ages they gave were consistent with their appearance, the Post could not verify their birth dates. In much of Burkina Faso, as many as 40 percent of births go unrecorded in official records.
Asked about the extent of child migrants working on Ivorian cocoa farms, the farmer overseeing Abou and the other boys noted the steady stream of buses carrying people from Burkina Faso into the area.
There's "a lot of them coming," said the farmer, who asked that his name not be used because he didn't want to attract attention from the authorities. "It's them who do the work."
The farmer said he was paying the boy's "gran patron," the "big boss" who manages the boys, a little less than $9 per child for a week of work and who would, in turn, pay each of the boys about half of that.
The farmer said he considers the boys' treatment unfair but hired them because he needed the help. The low price for cocoa makes life difficult for everyone, he said.
"I admit that it is a kind of slavery," the farmer said. "They are still kids and they have the right to be educated today. But they bring them here to work, and it's the boss who takes the money."
From the Ivorian capital of Abidjan, the village of Bonon is a five-hour drive along two-lane roads pocked with pond-sized potholes. From the outskirts of the village, footpaths lead into the surrounding forests, where farmers have created groves of cocoa trees.
In a patch of woods one day in March, another group of boys was at work with machetes. Each said he had come from Burkina Faso to work on Ivory Coast's cocoa farms.
Like teen boys elsewhere, the boys near Bonon — Abou Ouedrago, 15; Karim Bakary, 16; and Aboudnamune Ouedrago, 13 —wore colorful branded sportswear. But they sleep in huts out in the woods, spend their days doing hard manual labor and don't attend school or see their families. Karim's yellow Adidas shirt was smeared with dirt. When one of the boys falls ill, they said they pool their money to go to the pharmacy.
During a break in the typical March day — where the temperature ran into the 90s — the boys shared water scooped into a bucket from a nearby pond. It was milky white.
They said they came in search of a better life and are paid about 85 cents a day.
"There is no money in Burkina," said Karim, who said he arrived here four years ago when he was 12. "We suffer a lot to get some money there. We came here to be able to have some money to eat."
One time, he said proudly, he was able to send some money back home: $34. He said he would like to stay in Ivory Coast to make more money.
The most somber of the three was Aboudnamune. He wore a Spider-Man ballcap and rarely smiled. He said he arrived two years ago when he was 11. He answered questions haltingly, sometimes staring into the distance, and said he'd like to see his parents because "it's been a while."
"Yes, it's a little bit hard," he said of his life on the cocoa farms. "We are hungry, and we make just a small amount of money."
A 2009 Tulane survey, based on interviews with 600 former migrant cocoa workers, offered a grim look at the economics that lead to child trafficking. Traffickers typically offer the children, who could be as young as 10, money or more specific incentives, such as bicycles, to take the bus to Ivory Coast. About half of those interviewed said they were not free to return home, and more than two-thirds said they experienced physical violence or threats. Most had been looking for work, and some said the money they were promised was never paid.
The man who was managing the boys for the owner of the farm, who declined to give his name, offered his perspective.
"Their parents abandoned them," he said. "They come here to make a living."
The most prominent, sustained public attention to the issue arose 18 years ago with reports from news organizations and the U.S. State Department that linked American chocolate to child slavery in West Africa.
"There is a moral responsibility ... for us not to allow slavery, child slavery, in the 21st century," Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., said at the time.
Engel introduced legislation that would have created a federal labeling system to indicate whether child slaves had been used in growing and harvesting cocoa. It allotted $250,000 to the Food and Drug Administration to develop the labels.
The measure passed the House, but the industry was adamant that no government regulation was necessary.
"We don't need legislation to deal with the problem," Susan Smith, then a spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, told a reporter at the time. "We are already acting."
Engel, along with then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, opted to negotiate an agreement with the chocolate companies.
Now known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol, the deal kept federal regulators from policing the chocolate supply.
But the deal committed the chocolate companies to eradicate child labor from their supply chains and to develop and implement "standards of public certification," which would indicate that cocoa products had been produced "without any of the worst forms of child labor."
The top officials of Hershey, Mars, Nestlé USA and five other chocolate companies signed onto the deal. The signing companies had "primary responsibility" for eradicating child labor, lawmakers said, but the Ivorian government, labor organizations and a consumer group also pledged support.
The protocol also specified a deadline: July 2005.
Over the next few years, the industry approached the challenge with working groups, pilot programs and attempts to redefine its promise.
The industry created the International Cocoa Initiative, which was supposed to coordinate company efforts.
And it gave the impression it was making progress. In February 2005, Smith, of the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, told an NPR interviewer that the deadline would be met.
But as Engel and others pointed out at the time, the companies were not close to meeting the deadline four months away.
Some experts note that what might be the most straightforward means of addressing child labor is scarcely mentioned: paying the farmers more for their cocoa. More money would give farmers enough to pay for their children's school expenses; alleviating their poverty would make them less desperate.
Under the Fairtrade program, cocoa farmers receive an extra 10 percent or more of prices, but that is not enough to lift the typical farmer out of poverty.
One small Dutch company, Tony's Chocolonely, is paying an even bigger premium — about 40 percent more, in an attempt to provide a living wage. Paul Schoenmakers, a Tony's company executive, noted that many of the large chocolate brands may fear giving their competitors a price advantage by paying more. Schoenmakers said their premium cocoa price adds less than 10 percent to the cost of a typical chocolate bar.
"Nobody needs chocolate," he said. "It's a gift to yourself or someone else. We think it's absolute madness that for a gift that no one really needs, so many people suffer."
"Nobody needs chocolate. It's a gift to yourself or someone else. We think it's absolute madness that for a gift that no one really needs, so many people suffer."
Paul Schoenmakers, executive, Dutch company Tony's Chocolonely