32. Slavery in the Cocoa Industry

Author: Natalie Brown, Sophomore

The chocolate that we know and love, from brands like Hershey’s or Nestle, is not as innocent as we may think. These large companies look to areas in West Africa as a source for their cocoa beans, which are harvested by young children. These young children are treated like slaves and their human rights violated daily. Farmers rely on their cheap labor as a means for profit. Farmers also rely on the chocolate companies, who purchase large quantities of their cocoa beans. The chocolate companies, in turn, rely on the farmers to supply them with cocoa; the cycle, then, is difficult to break. As we continue to demand this inexpensive chocolate, companies will continue getting their cocoa beans from the same farms that use child labor. If we demand chocolate that is Fair Trade certified, then companies that do not allow child labor will profit, leading to a decrease in the demand for cheap, unjust chocolate.
Chocolate is a delicious treat that people all over the world take pleasure in and is often available for purchase. It has become such a staple in our food consumption that it is difficult to imagine life without it. According to Gourmet Spot, the average American consumes approximately 11.7 pounds of chocolate each year (“Chocolate”). Although it is a treat, chocolate is not necessarily a luxury; one can purchase a Hershey’s chocolate bar, for example, for as low as fifty cents to a dollar. Despite the low cost, chocolate is “an $83 billion a year business…the industry’s value larger than the Gross Domestic Product of more than 130 nations on earth” (“Who Consumes”). Whether it is milk chocolate, dark chocolate, or any other form, chocolate can be found at almost any food store and in mass quantities in the U.S, whether a large grocery store or a small gas station.
Chocolate is not something that was just one day created as a delicious treat, but has a long history throughout which it was developed. According to The World Atlas of Chocolate, the consumption of cacao beans can be traced back to as early as the ancient civilizations of the Mayans and the Aztecs in Central and South America. It is believed that Christopher Columbus seized cacao plants and brought them back to Spain. When cacao was brought to Europe, it was sweetened and served as a drink. The beverage was a luxury that only some people could afford. The demand for cacao increased, leading European countries to start cultivating it in their colonies in the Caribbean, Ivory Coast of Africa, and some areas in South East Asia (“Chocolate Consumption”).
The increasing demand for cacao products continues to this day, profiting chocolate companies as they increase their supply. According to Isis Almeida, “chocolate sales will climb 5.7 percent to $108 billion, London- based Euromonitor International Ltd. estimates… Cocoa grinders are increasing output by the most in two years to meet record demand for chocolate” (Almeida). The matter is quite simple; people like chocolate. More so, people like chocolate that they do not have to pay much for. It is easy, then, for many people to get their hands on inexpensive products from big companies like Hershey’s and Nestle. No matter what store you go into, there will almost always be a number of products from these companies. Although we may think of a Hershey’s bar and a Twizzlers candy as two completely different things, the truth is that the Hershey company owns both: “Hershey offers confectionery products under more than 80 brand names, including…Kit Kat, Jolly Rancher, and Ice Breakers” (“Company Profile”). There is not so much diversity when it comes to food brands as we may think. To put this in perspective, “80 percent of the world chocolate market is accounted for by just six transnational companies, including Nestle, Mars, and Hershey (“Chocolate Consumption”). Because these companies own so many different brands, it would be difficult for them not to profit immensely. According to the International Labor Rights Forum, Hershey earned record profits in 2010, and forecasts continued growth for 2011 (“As Profits Soar”). People enjoy the low costs of Hershey products and their demand for them is increasing. The company, as a result, sells massive quantities of products in order to meet consumer demand. Why buy some fancy chocolate bar for two bucks when you can get any ordinary chocolate bar for half the price? According to Selin Camgöz, “goods in food industry compete mainly on taste and price, and people generally have a tendency to favor domestic products over imported ones in this industry (Camgöz 101). So, people generally determine which chocolate to buy depending on the taste of it as well as the price. It is no surprise, then, that the few massive chocolate companies are doing so well. Everybody loves their tasty goods at a low cost.
Although we may not realize it, in actuality there is a cost to our getting these various candies for such low prices; the cost of fairness. When biting into a chocolate bar, we do not often think about the process behind the making of it. We probably assume that if it is a Hershey’s bar, then it was made at the Hershey’s factory. The truth, however, is that a lot more goes into the making of a simple chocolate product that we may not realize. According to The Story of Chocolate, the cocoa beans that form the basis of chocolate are actually seeds that grow from the fruit of the cacao tree. These trees grow primarily in the tropical climates of West Africa and Latin America. It is in these areas, then, that companies like Hershey’s look to for a source of their cocoa beans. The beans get shipped to factories, where “manufacturers inspect and clean them, then roast and grind them into a paste called chocolate liquor. More pressing, rolling, mixing with sugar and other ingredients, and heating and cooling yields delicious chocolate” (“What Is It”). These last steps are perhaps what we think of when contemplating the making of our chocolate. The harvesting of the cocoa beans, however, is a crucial process that involves a lot of time and effort.
The effort that goes into supplying the cocoa beans for export is a matter of who will do the exhaustive labor required. The unfortunate truth is that cocoa farmers can barely make a living selling the cocoa beans on their own since the work is so strenuous and the demand for cocoa so great. As a result, they resort to the use of child labor, which is ultimately a representation of slavery. The widespread poverty that exists in West Africa is a factor contributing to the use of child labor. Food Is Power explains how young, impoverished children look for work to support their families. They often end up on the cocoa farms because they are told the pay is good (“Slavery in”). The reality, however, is that the work environments, especially for young children, are extremely dangerous. To start, the children going into this work may not see their families for years, if ever. Sudarsan Raghavan and Sumana Chatterjee explain how most of the children are between the ages of 12 and 16, some as young as 9. They work from sunrise to sunset, climbing cocoa trees and cutting bean pods with machetes. They pack the pods in large, heavy sacks and drag them through the forest (Raghavan, Chatterjee). According to BBC Panorama, the children on the cocoa farms are often exposed to agricultural chemicals (“Tracing”). The conditions of the working environments that these young children experience are in no way safe.
Not only do children experience harsh working conditions, but the work given to them on cocoa farms is actually a violation of their human rights. According to Nicole Caruth, in 2004, artist April Banks traveled to West Africa to learn about the cocoa farms. She acknowledged “a recurrent history of violence…in cocoa cultivation, chocolate consumption, and the resultant human oppression” (Caruth). This recurrent history of violence parallels that of the Atlantic Slave Trade that occurred when colonizers oppressed slaves; the cocoa industry is not so different. Most children, while working on the farms, are unable to attend school (“Slavery in”) which is a violation of the International Labour Organization (ILO) child labor standards (“Convention”). In addition to their being withheld from an education, children entering work on cocoa farms are often lied to about what to expect. Raghavan and Chatterjee explain the story of Aly Diabate who was “almost 12 when a slave trader promised him a bicycle and $150 a year to help support his poor parents in Mali. He worked for a year and a half for a cocoa farmer…but he said his only rewards were the rare days when overseers or older slaves didn’t flog him with a bicycle chain or branches from a cacao tree” (Raghavan, Chatterjee). Merriam-Webster defines slavery as “submission to a dominating influence” (“Slavery”). There is no doubt that the people supervising the children working on cocoa farms express their dominance over them by utilizing slave owner-like tactics.
The problems with the cocoa industry go beyond the harsh working environments on the cocoa farms and involve economics. They are complicated issues because, from an economic perspective, the supply and demand process of the cocoa industry is a continuous cycle that benefits the suppliers as well as the companies and consumers. As I mentioned before, the demand for cocoa products is gradually increasing. According to the USDA Economic Research Service, cocoa imports to the US have soared to 1,222,300 metric tons (up from 999,600 in 2001), and cocoa imports to the US are now valued at $4.3 billion (“As Profits Soar”). It is this huge and constant demand for cocoa that is at the root of the productiveness of the cocoa industry. Two West African countries, Ghana and the Ivory Coast, supply 75% of the world’s cocoa market (“Slavery In”). Since cacao trees grow in these areas, they are targeted by chocolate companies. Cocoa farm owners sell their beans to these large companies, turning the cultivation of cocoa into a profitable business. When it comes to the economics involved, both sides benefit, as well as depend on each other; the cocoa farmers depend on the chocolate companies, who in turn, depend on the cocoa farmers. If the companies like Hershey’s and Nestle did not demand cocoa beans, the cocoa farmers would not have anyone to export to. They would, as a result, not be able to earn profit from their cocoa beans. Likewise, without the suppliers of cocoa beans, chocolate companies would not have a source for their (essential) cocoa. Therefore, the cocoa industry benefits and sustains the companies importing the cocoa, as well as those exporting it.
The problem with the cocoa industry, then, comes from the logistics involved and who all benefits. As I have mentioned, there is clearly some injustice in the system. Cocoa farmers are able to profit only from utilizing what is basically slave labor; without it, there would be no way for them to meet the increasing demands of the chocolate companies. It is the cocoa demand, therefore, that fuels the harsh tactics of the farmers. From the perspective of the chocolate companies, the source of their cocoa is benefitting them greatly. They are able to purchase mass quantities of cocoa beans and have them shipped to their factories, where they are manufactured into what we know and love as chocolate. As the system operates with companies purchasing from sources that use cheap labor, we as the consumers also benefit. This is why we are able to go to the store and buy some Hershey’s chocolate for less than a dollar. It is a means for profit that these companies choose cheap labor as their cocoa source. The cheap labor benefits cocoa farmers, cocoa companies, and we, cocoa lovers, around the world; only at the cost of human rights.
A question that would naturally arise upon learning about the harsh realities of the cocoa industry is whether or not the chocolate companies are aware of the slavery that is providing them with their cocoa beans. This question is complex because the cocoa industry as a whole is becoming increasingly secretive. Various organizations and journalists have exposed the fact that child labor is used on cocoa farms in West Africa. It is difficult, now, for anyone to access the farms where the mistreatment is occurring, and also to share that information with the public. An article in Thomson Reuters Foundation, for example, explains how three journalists were arrested by authorities in the Ivory Coast for reporting on corruption in the cocoa industry. It is also noted that back in 2004, another journalist wrote about the same corruption while investigating the cocoa industry—he was kidnapped and has been missing ever since (Fletcher). The industry as a whole, then, has to be dealt with very carefully since lives are at stake. There is much uncertainty as a result of investigators not being able to always see what is really going on, or not being able to report their actual findings. Although the chocolate companies themselves may not be aware of the extent to which human rights are violated on cocoa farms, it does not really matter; the primary concern of the companies is that they get the cocoa beans they need in order to sell to consumers and earn a profit—by whatever means necessary.
With all of the secrecy in the cocoa industry and because the people exporting and importing cocoa depend on one another, it is difficult to put the blame on a single cause of the slavery on cocoa farms. One may say that the farmers are responsible because they are the ones who employ the young children who are mistreated. At the same time, the farmers would not have to employ workers if there was no demand for cocoa. So, perhaps it is the chocolate companies themselves who are responsible. If the companies are simply supplying consumers, though, then it is the consumers who are the ultimate reason for the need for cocoa in the first place. Are we, lovers of chocolate, the ones who are responsible for the child slavery occurring in the cocoa industry? As Michel Larouche, the West Africa regional director for Save the Children Canada says, “It’s hard to say one is responsible. It’s easier to look at who is not responsible” (Raghavan, Chatterjee). The fact that we cannot pinpoint who is chiefly at fault for the injustice in the cocoa industry is a hint that everyone involved plays some vital role for the continuation of the way the system works.
How, then, can we solve the problem of child slavery? How can we ensure that the chocolate we eat was not produced from cocoa beans that were handled by mistreated children? Currently, there is little being done to end the use of child labor in the cocoa industry. According to Fair Chocolate, “in 2001 the Harkin-Engel Protocol was proposed, setting labor standards, monitoring, and certification for chocolate farms” (“Fair Trade”). Despite this proposition, Fair Chocolate goes on to say that this is only in writing and that “the companies choose to ignore this issue, their representatives have no data to present, and because the companies are so large, they can get away with this not-so-secret horror” (“Fair Trade”). Although the big companies like Hershey’s and Nestle have not ceased to get their cocoa beans from the corrupt cocoa farms of West Africa, there are other companies that make an effort to purchase only fair trade cocoa (“Fair Trade”). Fair Trade certification “ensures that farmers receive a fair price…and strictly prohibits slave and child labor” (“Cocoa”). Companies that have Fair Trade certification make chocolate that is higher quality, but also more expensive, than the mass-produced cheap chocolate that is so common (“Fair Trade”). It is possible, then, for consumers to purchase chocolate that they can assume has not been rooted in child slave labor. The problem, however, still persists. When given the choice between a 75 cent Hershey bar and a fancy two dollar chocolate bar with a Fair Trade label, it is very likely that people would choose the inexpensive Hershey brand that they know and love.
In order to help solve the problem of child slavery in the cocoa industry, our focus must be on the driving force of it—demand. As I mentioned earlier, it is our massive consumption of chocolate, specifically brands like Hershey’s and Nestle, that is causing the demand for cheap cocoa beans in West Africa. Without this demand, there would be no need for said cocoa beans, and no need for child labor as a result. The answer to how we must go about this is simple, although the process may be a bit more complex. People have to want Fair Trade chocolate. Since goods compete mainly on taste and price and the price of Fair Trade chocolate is more than that of, say, Hershey’s, then people must realize the far superior taste of Fair Trade chocolate. In order for this to happen, there must be opportunities for people to sample Fair Trade chocolate without having to buy it. Like wine tastings, for example, there could be chocolate tastings. They would be conducted by Fair Trade activists willing to travel around and encourage people of all ages to taste Fair Trade chocolate in comparison to Hershey’s. One company that does not use chocolate produced by slave labor, for example, is Green & Black’s (“Fair Trade”). This company claims that it makes quality chocolate by “harvesting the finest organically grown cocoa beans, or taking extra production time and care that brings out our trademark intense flavor” (“Our Chocolates”). The company sells everything from white to dark chocolate, so anyone can find a flavor that suites their taste best. If this fails, however, and the taste of the chocolate alone is not enough to convince people to buy Fair Trade, perhaps it would help to educate them on the truth behind the cheap chocolate they consume. While comparing the taste of Fair Trade chocolate to Hershey’s, people should be informed of what exactly went into the production of their chocolate. Once they learn about where and how the beans were harvested before they were shipped off to manufacturers, their perspectives are likely to change. After learning the truth, it is difficult for one to eat a Hershey’s bar without thinking about the labor and injustice behind it. In the end, if there can be a change in enough peoples’ mindsets, there is great potential for a Fair Trade revolution. The taste of Fair Trade chocolate, as well as the equality that it entails, would be the root motive for the demand of it; this demand just has to surpass that of Hershey’s or Nestle.
Putting an end to child labor can go beyond the cocoa industry. Children around the world are employed by industries using them as cheap labor. In Bangladesh, for example, many young children slave in factories, sewing clothing for big companies like Wal-Mart or JC Penney; companies from which we buy our cheap clothes (Castillo). In order to end the unjust child labor, then, we consumers need to take action. As with chocolate, cheap clothing only comes to us through cheap labor. By decreasing our demand for cheap goods and purchasing better quality products that are made fairly, we can reduce the need for child labor.
Although we may not realize it, the process behind the production of the chocolate that we so often consume involves a lot more than just combining some ingredients together to get a tasty treat. There is child slave labor used to supply cocoa beans for the big companies we purchase from, including Hershey’s and Nestle. Children work in dangerous environments and their human rights are violated, all as a means for farmers to profit. These farmers rely on exporting to chocolate companies, who also rely on the farmers as a source of their cocoa. The cycle would be difficult to break because we as consumers demand such large quantities of chocolate, causing farmers to have to harvest large quantities of cocoa beans. Although little is being done to end child slavery in the cocoa industry, we can certainly find ways to encourage people to purchase Fair Trade chocolate that was made from companies prohibiting slave labor. If the demand for Fair Trade chocolate increases, perhaps more and more suppliers will turn to actually paying workers and ending slave labor. In addition to chocolate, the purchasing of cheap goods like clothing can have an impact on child labor. If we consumers seek higher quality products that are not made by the use of child labor, the demand for unjustly-made cheap goods will go down, decreasing the need for child labor.

Works Cited

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