It’s a distinction that coffeemakers, cafes and other retailers have boldly made over the past two years: that the java customers sip every morning was produced under humane conditions and that those who grow the coffee ingredients are fairly compensated.
But a more than year-long investigation by “Impact x Nightline” found evidence of child labor and on several coffee farms and ethically certified farmers living in poverty in southern Mexico – the heartland of coffee production. coffee in North America.
While organizations have acknowledged that the scale of the problem makes it difficult to fully address them, activists say they need to redouble their efforts before more people are injured.
Impact growers discovered a group of children working on a Rainforest Alliance certified farm in Chiapas, Mexico in 2021, some of whom were as young as 6 years old.
One boy told the team he was 12 years old and had been harvesting for two months without access to a school.
Mexico’s minimum working age is 15, and Rainforest Alliance policies state that children who live on member farms must attend school or babysit while their parents work.
At the time of the team’s visit in late 2021, the farm’s latest publicly available audit indicated that it was in compliance with most Rainforest Alliance policies, including a ban on employing children.
Some adult farmers from other Rainforest Alliance small-scale farms told Impact that they struggled to provide enough food for their families and that it was not unusual for children to work on the farms and help their families. families, with some estimating they saw as many as 20 children in one community visited by the team.
“My 5-year-old nephew, he picks in the little plants,” one named farmer told Impact.
Watch the full report on free-trade coffee in an episode of Impact by Nightline streaming on Hulu.
Fernando Bautista, Rainforest Alliance regional manager for Chiapas, first told Impact that his organization monitored its farms to make sure children were not working, but when Impact reporters showed him videos and photos of the children on their farm, he acknowledged that not all the farms they certify are inspected.
“As an organization I can tell you that we are working to eradicate all of this [child labor]“, he told Impact, adding that the organization would investigate the farms in question.
Rainforest Alliance would eventually withdraw its certification from the three farms where Impact found evidence of child labor during its 2021 trip.
“Child labor is a serious violation of human rights and has no place in responsible business,” the organization said in a statement to Impact.
The organization added that it has taken an “assess and address” approach to child labor that “goes beyond simply prohibiting and helping farmers identify and address the root cause of child labor. because they claim that “a zero-tolerance approach has only pushed child labor underground, where it is harder to detect.”
“Our system does not promise to be foolproof,” Rainforest Alliance said in its statement. “We strive to help prevent, monitor and remediate situations as we become aware of them. It’s an uphill battle.”
Amelia Evans, who leads an independent research team that studies the ethical certification industry and its impact on human rights around the world, told Impact that ethical certifiers consistently fail to prevent human rights abuses. and that it is impossible for them to carry out complete audits of all the farms they certify.
“There’s a risk that these initiatives, even if they don’t mean it, might do more harm than good,” Evans told Impact. “They can give the impression that these critical issues are being taken care of, when in fact these issues are self-perpetuating.”
Evans said the Rainforest Alliance is one of the best performers, but said it fails “to systematically address human rights abuses, even though they tend to display good practices” .
“The fact is, what we’re seeing are certification programs that are voluntary efforts just aren’t enough to solve the problem,” she said.
Evans added that coffee shop customers also need to be more aware of the underlying issues in the industry and the efforts to address them.
“As consumers, we need to grapple much more with the complexity of what it means that goods are expensive to produce if we are paying people fair wages,” she said.
ABC News’ Ivan Pereira and Candace Smith contributed to this report.