By Ange Aboa
BOUNA, Ivory Coast (Reuters) - A court in Ivory Coast on Wednesday sentenced 10 people found guilty of child trafficking to 10 years in jail, part of an effort to clamp down on organised networks that smuggle children to work in cocoa plantations.
Ivory Coast, the world's top cocoa producer, and the companies that buy its cocoa are facing international pressure to tackle child labour and put measures in place to guarantee sustainable farming.
The group of suspects, which included transporters and smugglers, all came from Ivory Coast's northern neighbour Burkina Faso, prosecutors said during the trial in Bouna, a town near the two countries' border. They all pleaded not guilty.
They were arrested in April while transporting about 40 minors between the ages of 10 and 17-years old. The children were being ferried via two main routes to work in plantations in the central and southern parts of Ivory Coast's cocoa belt.
The children have since been released and returned to Burkina Faso.
Deputy Prosecutor Edgar Damoi told the court that Ivory Coast is stepping up repression of child labour and trafficking in the cocoa sector in order to discourage would-be abusers undeterred by years of light sentencing.
"Our economy is based on agriculture, we must ensure that the products, especially cocoa and coffee, are never the result of child labour," Damoi said.
The transport license of the company whose coaches were used to transport the children has been suspended, he added.
European Union lawmakers have called for Ivory Coast to pass legislation by the end of the year to prevent the import of commodities and products linked to deforestation and human rights abuses.
The law could hurt Ivory Coast's main export, which accounts for around 40% of its export earnings. A recent study showed that child labour had risen in cocoa farms in both of the world's two top producers, Ivory Coast and Ghana.
(Reporting by Ange Aboa, Editing by Bate Felix and Angus MacSwan)