Book Review: Bitter Chocolate

We all think that fair trade, organic chocolate is better than the ordinary stuff but until you read this book, you have no idea how much blood and horror is mixed into the regular chocolate bar on the shelf. Carol Off, a Canadian journalist who has covered conflicts from Yugoslavia to Afganistan, now looks that the Ivory Coast, source of half of the world's chocolate, and a formerly proud and successful African model that has degenerated into war and child slavery. She starts with the history of chocolate, from Cortez and the Spanish who learn about it from the Aztecs and enslave them to produce it. Soon cocoa is growing in a belt within 20 kilometres of the equator around the world, a labour-intensive crop harvested and dried with slave labour. When in 1828 Coenraad Van Houten figured out how to press the cocoa butter out to make Dutch Cocoa powder, the drink as we know it became popular. Then a series of open minded and progressive men like Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree in the UK and Hershey in America built empires at home with model cities and factories, while ignoring the obvious slavery abroad. Some of the most honourable men in either country were earning their livings off cocoa and sugar, grown by slaves. Now chocolate manufacturers can say they don't know where their supply comes from; our good TreeHugger friends Archer Daniels Midlands and Cargill act as the middlemen, buying all over the world, playing one supplier off against the other, to keep the prices low. But in 1965, the Ivory Coast dictator Felix-Houphouet-Boigne started using cocoa to turn his country into one of the success stories in Africa, building a gleaming modern capital city with wide highways and skyscrapers. After he died in 1993 the country fell apart, its neighbours in Liberia at civil war, its other neighbour Mali in a drought. Children are kidnapped and sold across the border to harvest the beans, and yet through all of this destruction and death, bags of cocoa beans keep showing up at the port.

Meanwhile, across the ocean in Central America the farmers were not doing much better financially. In Belize, English organic pioneer Craig Sams was looking for new products and discovered small numbers of indigenous farmers growing cocoa the tradtional ways,with no pesticides or fertilizers. Soon he was selling Green and Black's organic Mayan Chocolate, which was an instant hit; it was the first designated Fair Trade product in the UK. And the rest is history. Fair Trade is still a miniscule portion of the market but it is growing fast. (although, sounding like LEED, the cost of certification is too high and the paperwork far too complex for most of the farmers. According to Gregor Hargrove who helps them (yes, Canadians, a cousin to Buzz) there is not a single farmer in Belize who could figure it out.)

This book is important if you care about the people who make what you eat, and if you care about justice and the treatment of children. It is not perfect- there is a section about the death of a Canadian journalist that goes on far too long, while the coverage of the development and expansion of the fair trade movement is far too short. It completely ignores the impact of farming and drying methods and other developments that would interest TreeHuggers, because it much more a book about war than it is about chocolate. However I will never look at the stuff again without thinking of the blood count in it. ::Bitter Chocolate at Amazon

Tags: Books | Chocolate