ABIDJAN (Reuters) - Nestle NESN.VX NTLC.CI will partner with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to investigate whether children are working on cocoa farms which supply its factories in Ivory Coast, it said in a statement on Monday.
The West African nations that supply two thirds of the world's cocoa have long been targets of allegations by international rights groups that children are working as slaves on their cocoa plantations.
The Ivorian government, the cocoa sector and foreign multinationals who export and process Ivorian cocoa have all come under increasing scrutiny from rights and consumer groups campaigning for "Fair Trade" food untainted by violence, child slavery or the destruction of natural forests.
"Nestle has decided to work with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) to investigate whether children are working on cocoa farms supplying its factories," the joint statement said.
"In January the FLA will send independent experts to Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) to examine Nestle's cocoa supply chain," it said, adding it was the first food company to do this.
Reactions from cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast were mixed, with some resenting what they see as Western interference in a poor region where child labor is a reality, but others welcoming scrutiny to help stamp out the practice.
"They can come and see our plantations but for us this is a false issue," said Labbe Zoungrana, who farms near the coastal region of San Pedro. "Instead of spending their money for nothing, perhaps they could help improve security, which is our real concern."
But other farmers and cooperative managers supported the idea.
"We've been fighting against this practice for the past five years," said Francois Badiel, a cooperative manager in the western region of Gagnoa. "Here the farmers are more educated about the dangers of using children now. They don't do it anymore."
Children often end up being used as laborers because poor farmers cannot afford to send them to school. In the case of Ivory Coast, that has largely been the case because of conflict and instability, which plagued it for a decade until a civil war ended earlier this year.
Reporting by Tim Cocks and Loucoumane Coulibaly; Editing by David Holmes