Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

School ‘Useless’

“He claimed she left on her own,” the schoolmaster recalls, “but we realized later he had compelled her to leave.” Or as Clarisse puts it, Kamboule “told me going to school was useless.”

She wasn’t useless to Kamboule. Like other farmers from across Burkina Faso, he says the cash that neighboring growers fetched for organic and fair-trade cotton persuaded him to plant the fiber. Previously, he had grown millet, mostly to feed his family. For the cotton planted in 2010, organic farmers could net up to 70 percent more per hectare than neighbors using genetically modified seeds, according to data from Helvetas.

Kamboule and some growers say nobody from the program gave them rules or training about child labor on their farms. Face- to-face instruction would be a necessity in a nation where 71 percent of the population can’t read.

‘Nothing About Children’

“No, they said nothing about children,” recalled Louis Joseph Kambire, 69, a wiry fair-trade farmer who sits on the audit committee of the Benvar cooperative. Without kids of his own, Kambire forces the foster children in his care to work in an organic and fair-trade cotton field that he’s cultivated right next to Clarisse’s.

The children — 10-year-old Edmond Dieudone and 12-year-old Ponhitierre Some — make it possible for him to earn a living from fair-trade cotton, says Kambire, wearing a white crucifix on a black cord around his neck and a white fedora with a black band on his head. “That’s why they are working with me,” he says. Before the fair-trade program, he hadn’t made them labor in his subsistence fields.

Sometimes, Clarisse spies Edmond and Ponhitierre in the distance, though they keep silent. “We can’t speak when the farmers are there,” she says.

Little Training

There was little or no effort to increase training after the 2008 report, according to Bloomberg interviews with farmers in five of the six villages where the survey was conducted. Dramane Diabre, a farmer with 13 children in the eastern region of the country, says he received training on avoiding illegal child labor in 2010. By contrast, every farmer in the southwest said there was never any resulting action.

Growers across the country say they got regular technical training on how to maintain organic purity following concerns about contamination with the 2008 introduction of genetically modified crops in the country’s conventional cotton sector. The fiber can be scientifically tested for organic purity, not for whether children grow it.

Guebre, the head of organic and fair trade for the growers group, says technical sessions included information on child labor. “If someone doesn’t want it, we can’t force him,” says Guebre, whose group keeps a share of the price paid by Victoria’s Secret. “If he says he didn’t participate or didn’t hear, that’s something else.”

In response to questions, the growers federation denied that child labor is used in its program. Guebre also says its myriad requirements, including avoiding such labor, are read out to farmers when they initially sign on.

Hauling Manure Compost

Like others, Baasolokoun “Bassole” Dabire, 53, president of the organic and fair-trade cooperative in the village of Yabogane, didn’t get the message. He said his understanding was that it’s acceptable for his roughly 60 farmers to use children in their fields on two conditions: They’re not their own biological children, and they’re at least six years old.

“Your own children, no, but somebody else’s child can work,” he says in an interview near his farm in the southwest.

The cotton Clarisse grows comes with two certifications — one for fair trade and one for organic. Buyers pay the program a premium for each. In the field, the organic designation means she avoids pesticides or mineral fertilizers that can plague children forced to labor in conventional cotton.

Yet the lack of chemicals carries its own cost. Two or three times between digging rows and harvesting each season, Clarisse must spend days hauling buckets of manure compost on her head about half a mile to her field from a pit she helps maintain. Bending at her waist, she uses both hands to spread a circle of compost around each of the thousands of plants. Her lower back aches.