Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Photographer: Scott Eells/Bloomberg

‘Very Painful’

“It’s very painful,” Clarisse says, “because I have to keep doing it until he tells me I can stop.”

Without herbicides and pesticides, Clarisse must defend the crop against weeds and other invaders — by hand. One of the cotton farmer’s greatest enemies is the boll worm, which can quickly destroy an entire crop if left unchecked.

Clarisse says she walks the rows, delicately reaching into a plant when she spots a worm. Without disturbing their fragile bolls, she extracts each worm with a firm pinch. They can grow as large as her index finger. She throws them onto the ground, flips over her hoe and uses its flat side to crush each one against the gravelly earth.

First Harvest

By the time Clarisse started picking her first harvest in 2010, Victoria’s Secret was becoming the program’s only buyer instead of just the most prominent, according to Guebre of the growers group and Meier, whose Swiss group advises it. That’s because the country’s overall organic yield was shrinking ever- closer to the 600 metric tons per year guaranteed to the lingerie company.

At about 5:40 a.m. on the first day of Clarisse’s harvest this November, the horizon behind her hut starts to glow red, almost purple, while she stirs inside. Just before sunrise, she pushes open the metal door. She places a bucket inside a wicker bushel and tightly folds a faded propylene sack until it’s the size of a pocket book, flicking it into the bucket with a snap of her wrist. Without breaking stride, Clarisse raises the bushel with both hands, walks beneath it and balances it on her head.

She heads down a path beside a corn field leveled by the harvest, a pair of flip-flops with pink straps popping beneath her feet, her hands resting easily at her sides. All around Clarisse, the earth is like a wasteland. It’s black and charred from clearing fires set by farmers, filling the air with the smell of burning grass, sweet and strong.

Row Upon Row

She crosses the main village road, the one that leads to Benvar’s school, and steps onto a slender trail winding through dry, golden stalks of grain that rise above her head. After about 50 paces, she emerges to see the work that awaits her: row upon row of bolls bursting with cotton. The farmer is already here, working where the plants are most in danger of being trampled by passersby. At the opposite end stands a tree branch topped by the green flag.

By 7:15 a.m., the sliver of shade in the bottom corner of her field disappears, as the West African sun rises with the temperature. On the road above the field, a boy walking to school says he and his friends notice the children working almost every day. “We see them to be suffering,” says Seuka Somda, who, like Clarisse, is 13.

Giant Shea Tree

The harvesting pauses at about noon, after six hours of picking. Clarisse heads to the village square to cool herself in the shade of a giant shea tree that grows in its center. Before long, a woman calls her name. She jumps to her feet and scurries over. Three men traveling through the village have stopped to cool themselves and drink some of the local brew, called “pito.” As Clarisse refills their bowls, one man tells her: “If you give me a refill, it means you have agreed to sleep with me.” She pours his pito, turns and walks away.

Around 4 p.m., Clarisse returns to the field. A large wicker bushel bulges with cotton. She bends over and compacts it as tightly as she can. Cotton towers above the bushel’s rim. Clarisse wobbles as she sets it atop a blue, yellow and red scarf wrapped on the crown of her head.

She makes her way along the road under the weight of the harvest, weak from eating nothing for two days except some roasted groundnuts given to her by another child laborer. Two men on bicycles pedal toward her, both carrying bulging bags balanced on their frames. “Have you gone to grind some flour?” she calls out. “Can you kindly give me some so I can make something to eat?” The men say nothing, continuing down the red dirt road toward the village square.

Storing the Cotton

Clarisse carries her bushel to a neighbor’s home where Kamboule stores his cotton because it’s closer to the pickup point for the organic and fair-trade program. The house, in relative luxury with its poured