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DALLAS/NEW YORK (Reuters) - Valentine chocolates may become the new blood diamonds.
As chocolatiers plan for one of their biggest sales weeks of the year, human rights activists are stepping up efforts to make consumers think twice before purchasing the traditional box of chocolates for their sweethearts for Valentine's Day on Monday.
One online campaign is aimed at raising awareness of the cocoa trade in Ivory Coast, which is helping to prop up the pariah regime of incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo, while another focuses on ending the alleged use of child labor by growers in West Africa, which produces about two-thirds of the world's cocoa.
The push to expose the unsavory side of chocolate follows a tradition of activism to focus attention on the grim consequences of producing foodstuffs and other raw materials, dating back to England's anti-slavery sugar boycotts of the late 18th century.
The latest campaigns bring to mind those against so-called "blood diamonds," once seen as fueling conflicts in Angola and Sierra Leone, or "sweatshop" factory conditions in China, driven by a hunger for cheap consumer goods.
Such efforts aim to put corporate practices in an unflattering light and create a public relations backlash for big chocolate makers such as Hershey Co. Still, experts say it is hard to make people stop buying things they love, even if they understand how they may be indirectly supporting human rights and labor abuses.
"The rational answer is always going to be 'This is not a good thing'," said Robert Passikoff, president of consulting firm Brand Keys. "Unfortunately, the decision process is not only rational. Most of the time, it's more emotional."
Activist group Green America is urging consumers to send a "valentine" to U.S.-based Hershey, or e-mails directly to its executives, urging the use of cocoa that has "been certified to be free from the worst forms of abusive child labor."
As of Monday, Green America said over 10,000 e-mails had been sent to Hershey executives.
"We are trying to get people from around the country to tell Hershey that there shouldn't be child labor or forced labor in their chocolate," said Todd Larsen with Green America.
While Larsen said Hershey was looking into its concerns, company spokesman Kirk Saville said he had no information about the campaign, adding that Hershey supports cocoa growers.
"We have helped develop more productive agricultural practices, helped build educational and community resources and helped eliminate exploitative labor practices," Saville said.
A company report said programs by Hershey and its peers, which include Mars Inc and Barry Callebaut, have "made a positive impact on an estimated 500,000 farmers and their families -- about 2.5 million people ..."
Efforts include founding of the World Cocoa Foundation, the International Cocoa Initiative and the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, a voluntary certification to ensure cocoa products were processed absent "the worst forms of child labor". Yet the protocol's 2005 deadline and 2008 extension were both missed.
The U.S. State Department's 2010 "Trafficking in Persons Report" described Ivory Coast as mostly a "destination for children and women subjected to trafficking ... Boys from Ghana, Mali, and Burkina Faso are subjected to forced labor in the agricultural sector, including on cocoa, coffee, pineapple, and rubber plantations."
"With the majority of modern slaves in agriculture and mining around the world - and forced labor prevalent in cotton, chocolate, steel, rubber, tin, tungsten, coltan, sugar, and seafood - it is impossible to get dressed, drive to work, talk on the phone, or eat a meal without touching products tainted by forced labor," the report said.
Producing 1.2 million tonnes of cocoa last year, Ivory Coast is by far the world's biggest source of the main ingredient in chocolate. With neighboring Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon also major growers, Western Africa is the main supplier for the global chocolate craving.
Hershey, the largest chocolate producer in the United States, is also one of several firms -- including Nestle, Cargill and Kraft's Cadbury -- targeted by Avaaz, an activist group pushing for a boycott of Ivorian cocoa. The boycott is related to violence said to be tied to President Gbagbo, who is under international pressure to step down after losing elections in November, according to U.N.-certified results.
Gbagbo rival Alassane Ouattara called for a month-long cocoa export ban to crank up the pressure, which has been further compounded by European Union sanctions. The ban is set to be lifted February 23.
Still Avaaz takes credit for almost 250,000 messages sent to the cocoa industry, and says it has brought consumer attention to an issue that has already roiled international cocoa markets.
Cocoa futures prices have risen more than 20 percent since the disputed November 28 election. U.S. cocoa futures reached a one-year top at $3,390 per tonne on January 27.
While the spike in prices could eat into profits for the Hersheys of the world, the campaigns are unlikely for now to crimp sales, said Edward Jones analyst Jack Russo.
"It's so far away geographically, and (Hershey's) brand name is so strong, I don't think it's going to have much of an impact," Russo said. "It's not to say they totally overlook it, but for consumers interested in this product I don't think it's going to have much impact."
Still, such tactics have a long tradition of raising public awareness about an issue and have ushered in changes, starting with the sugar boycotts in late 18th century England that were aimed at ending slavery.
"Several hundred thousand British households stopped using sugar that was cultivated by slaves and they tried instead to buy sugar from India," said Adam Hochschild, author of the best-selling book "Bury The Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery."
In the case of "blood diamonds", the industry scrambled to set up a global certification system that reduced the flow of conflict stones to less than one percent of global volumes from as much as 15 percent -- but there have been holes in the system in countries such as Zimbabwe and Ivory Coast.
Under a proposed U.S. rule aimed at cutting the flow of money to armed rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of companies could be forced to reveal the source of metals and ores like tantalum, or coltan, used widely in electronic gadgets.
Additional reporting by Marcy Nicholson; Editing by Alden Bentley