Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Even in poor countries, this job is often performed by a beast tethered to a plow. But Burkina Faso ranked 181st out of 187 countries in the 2011 United Nations Human Development Index, and the farmers who force Clarisse and the other children to work don’t own animals. Even if they did, they say they don’t have access to a plow, which costs the equivalent of about $150 in Burkina Faso, where about 80 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. The farmers contend that they wouldn’t need child laborers if they had the right tools.

Going Hungry

Each afternoon, Clarisse walks back to the hut, exhausted. Some days, she says, the farmer’s wife brings her a starchy white paste, made from corn or millet. Her head bowed, Clarisse makes the sign of the cross with her right hand before raising her chin and sinking her fingers into the gelatinous paste. If she’s lucky, she’s fed once per day, she says. Some days, she doesn’t eat at all.

Kamboule says he couldn’t raise fair-trade cotton without Clarisse. “If I leave the child out, how will I be able to do the work?” Kamboule says. He acknowledges striking her. “I sometimes beat her,” he says. “This is when I give her work and she doesn’t deliver.”

Like Clarisse, his own parents left him with relatives to labor rather than attend school. Strong and lean, the illiterate farmer seems to toil endlessly, wearing the same pair of tattered shorts each day.

Thousands of Farmers

On small-plot farms like Kamboule’s across Burkina Faso, researchers sponsored by the growers federation in 2008 found that more than half of 89 producers surveyed had a total of 90 foster children under the age of 18. Many had two or more. The problem was acute in the country’s southwest, which is the heart of the program’s production and Clarisse’s home. There were about 7,000 fair-trade farmers in the program that year, according to data from Helvetas.

The study found that two-thirds of foster children in homes like Kamboule’s weren’t in school when they were required to be. Fair-trade farmers told researchers they didn’t pay the kids, leading the study’s authors to write, “This category of children is a problem on several levels: in terms of their social vulnerability on the one hand, and in terms of their status at work on the other. These foster children have an employee status: they are clearly asked to work, as expressed in the words of the producers, but they receive no remuneration, regardless of age.”

Wanting to Learn

Some foster children also were abused or malnourished. Even though they’re legally required to be in school, fewer than one in three was enrolled in the southwest, in contrast to the farmers’ own children.

“The study showed that the situation of the children is not a catastrophe, but they are quite weak,” says Meier, of Helvetas, adding that his group is “in favor” of implementing its recommendations. “But we cannot act ourself in this respect.”

The bulk of the research focused on the work performed by the growers’ own kids, arguing that even when they were illegally kept out of school their labor was a beneficial form of vocational education.

Clarisse was determined to attend school. Shortly after her aunt brought her to Burkina Faso, she set off without permission one winter morning for Benvar’s primary school, more than a mile down a red dirt road. She planted herself inside one of the three classrooms that make up the squat, concrete building, where she was one of 70 new pupils squeezed onto benches in a school with more than 300 students. One classroom had blackboards at either end, with half the students listening to one teacher, and the other half facing the opposite direction listening to another.

‘Clever and Polite’

Amid the crush of children, teachers noticed her. “She was unusual — clever and polite,” recalls Moussa Kiemtore, 34, the school’s headmaster, who sports a clean-shaven head and a small tuft of hair on his chin. Clarisse stood out because she understood and even spoke some French she had learned in Ivory Coast. Though it’s the official language in Burkina Faso — and the language of instruction in its schools — very few children in and around Benvar know French, especially the youngest, Kiemtore says.

Clarisse was overjoyed. “They showed me many new things,” she says.

She wouldn’t stay in school for long. Her seat was empty before she completed a single term. The schoolmaster was alarmed when he heard the French-speaking girl was no longer in class. He visited Kamboule and tried to persuade him to bring her back.