With Valentine’s Day around the corner, many people will be reaching for chocolate. With its creamy, addictive taste, chocolate has long been associated with romance. And yet, this seductive sweet has a bitter backstory that many consumers don’t want to think about. It’s ironic that chocolate, commonly bought to induce happiness, is such a great source of misery.
If you thought slavery had ended, think again. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, children are often kidnapped from neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso in order to provide slave labour on cocoa plantations. In Bitter Chocolate, journalist Carol Off describes the conditions in which these child slaves work:
These children are responsible for climbing cocoa trees, cutting down bean pods, and chopping them open with machetes, which leads to inevitable accidents. They are exposed to hazardous pesticides that they spray without protective equipment. They are fed corn paste and bananas, the cheapest food available, and they’re not paid.
“The farmers were working the young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten. They had horrible sores on their backs and shoulders… Farmers were paying organized groups of smugglers to deliver the children to their cocoa groves, while police were being bribed to look the other way.”
When one former child slave was asked what he’d say to chocolate-eating Westerners, he answered, “When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.”
Despite the fact that the cocoa industry’s awful human rights record is now public knowledge, “Big Chocolate” – Cargill, Nestlé, Hershey, Mars, etc. – has not taken the necessary steps to guarantee that its products are slave-free. Many problems could be alleviated, or at least improved, if these companies paid their workers a living wage, one that is high enough to maintain a basic standard of living that includes education, health care, and savings.
A big part of the problem is that Western consumers love eating cheap chocolate so much that they don’t pressure the industry to change. Rather than being viewed as a rare, expensive treat, chocolate has become “a universal luxury – a reasonably priced frivolity for everyone, except those who’ve never heard of it or can’t afford to buy it. Ironically, that unenviable group includes the people who produce its most essential ingredient.” [Bitter Chocolate]
The best thing consumers can do is to read labels. Fair trade is a decent option, as it ensures producers sell chocolate at above-market prices, generating extra income to improve community infrastructure and give a higher quality of life to farming communities. The downside is that certification can be very costly, and is often unaffordable for small-scale operations. It seems intrinsically unfair that producers must pay extra money to ensure forced labour is not part of their product.
It's important to note that, in 2012, Fair Trade USA split from the International Fair Trade Organization because it wanted to be able to certify huge coffee corporations, instead of sticking to the small, farmer-run cooperatives that the global FTO continues to support, refusing to buy into the corporatization of fair trade. (You can thank Starbucks for influencing that split.)
The green Rainforest Alliance stamp is also valuable. It ensures that farmers are growing cocoa in environmentally responsible ways – protecting shade trees, planting native species, maintaining wildlife corridors, conserving natural resources, and reducing pesticide use.
Consumers can influence the chocolate industry, and reading labels is the best place to start. Vote with your dollars, and don’t give slave-made chocolate to your beloved this Valentine’s Day.