Bittersweet Chocolate

Everybody knows it.
Cocoa is a dirty business.

But the creamy sweetness that runs through your mouth is so tempting.
The tickling at the side of the back of your tongue makes you forget the bitterness.
It blinds out the origin of a global product that we enjoy so much.

The fact that most of the cocoa farmers have no idea how chocolate tastes like shows how perverted the market processes are that influence the cocoa trade.

Its a highly volatile market with a commodity that is traded at the biggest stock exchanges in Chicago and London, but produced by poor farmers in the rain forests of the West African region who have no say in the trade with the big market players.

The cocoa market is divided between 5 or 6 big raw cocoa buying companies and the big multinationals like Nestlé, Mars, Unilever, Danone, Cargill, Hersheys or Cadburry who buy the processed cocoa from said raw buyers and produce what somehow became an ideogram for a merry Christmas.

The global production of cocoa is 4.100.000 t. (or 9038953480 lb for my american readers.) More than 2.000.000 t are produced in and around Ghana and the Cote d’Ivoire making it a key area of attention for market player and their strategic, long-term investments into a growing market. Nevertheless the countries face difficulties that seem sometimes too big to solve.

Widespread corruption in the trade created an unequal system of beneficiaries, reaching from the harbor authorities over the policemen at the toll stations all the way to the agric traders for fertilizers and other goods that are used to boost the yield and reduce the workload. If you are not part of the circle of favorites you might not have access to fertilizers or be able to hire labor, making it impossible to grow enough cocoa to survive the year.

The Ghana Cocoa Board, which buys all the cocoa in Ghana and sells it to the world market in exchange for hybrid seeds and investment in infrastructure, is a state owned institution in the business of the cocoa trade. Long before the independence the board was involved in controlling the market and (self-proclaimed) protect the farmers from price fluctuation on the market.

Like all institutions the board has its problems with widespread corruption and malpractice. Most common are the simple neglect of rural communities when it comes to the accessibility of markets or storage facilities as well as the provision with pesticides or other chemical substitutes. In addition the cocoa farmers face huge difficulties with the fact that the imported chemicals are controlled by the Ghana Standards Authority which is not really known for its excellence and customer service.
Every now and then hazardous chemicals are found on the farms and together with the lack of education and training farm workers health is affected. Since spraying trees is not difficult, the main group of workers to do this task are children. Which leads to the next problem that is child labor, modern slavery and unsustainability of the cocoa business.

According to UNICEF there are 1.8 million children working on cocoa farms in Western Africa. Most of them are direct relatives of the farmers and are supposed to help decrease the formal labor costs.
In Cote d’Ivoire, where most of the cocoa is grown on commercial scale big farms child labor is widespread and it is connected to a perfidious system of poverty, dependency and slavery.
Begging kids are being abducted in the streets of Burkina Faso and Mali and sold to farmers in the south. Sometimes bought from the desperate families for a handful of dollars hoping that they will send home money as soon as they start working in the city, which was promised to them.
Professional child trafficking gangs sell kids for as little as 150 $ into life circumstances that are not any different than the times of slavery in the 17th and 19th century.
It is extremely hard and dangerous work that is done by this kids. 
Mostly they are used to climb the trees and cut the ripe cocoa fruit. Kids use machetes to cut and later open the fruits to access the kernels. A lack of power, coordination and nutrition based fatigue leads to common injuries of hands and lower arms as well as legs. 
As for the rest, there is tropical climate and dirt as well as a lack of access to basic medical treatment, especially if you can get a new kid for just 150 $.
Blaming the farmer is not the right approach. According to the UNCTAD, more than 95% of all cocoa farmers live under the poverty line of 1.25$/day. Buying kids and cheap labor is a necessity for them to survive in the only business they know.

There are world wide schemes to fight child labor. Long names such as the ILO’s Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, one of the basic pillars of ILO’s policies that was ratified in 1999 has still to show substantial effect on the cocoa trade.

In the USA, the biggest market for chocolate worldwide, an introduction to a legislative amendment to end child slavery in cocoa business by issuing a ‘slave free chocolate’ label was first approved by the house of representatives but later crippled by lobbyists and changed into and agreement on voluntary basis that would allow the industry to react more flexible to the cause. The Harkin-Engel Protocol was set up to access data on child labor in the cocoa trade by the industry itself.
Deadlines for data collection in 2005 and 2008 were not met mostly because of a lack of independent verification of the data acquired. There is absolutely no legal binding measures and accountability due to involved institutions that are basically a mere joke in their inner structure and commitment.

The boy you see on the picture above worked in a cocoa storage facility in Hohoe when I visited the town in 2010. He was 17 and worker there for more than 3 years he told me. 

They would store about 150 tons of cocoa in that building and loading the trucks by hand as soon as they come to collect the bags.
66 kg or 130 lbs to be carried on the head. Over and over again until the 230 bags are on the truck which is a total of 15 tons. Moved by manual labor. By the hands of young men like him.

Now you might sit there and think: Thanks Julian! Now every time I eat some chocolate, not only do I feel the guilt because of my winterlovehandlesthatsoonwillbemynewyearsresolutions, but also I feel horrible because little kids starve, get beaten and cut themselves accidentally so I can have my chocolate for the cheapest prize possible.

And yes you are right. You should feel horrible.

There is no way to eat discounter-sold non-certified chocolate without eating the product of exploitation.

Look out for FAIRTRADE products. Ask your local store to stock up. If you can’t find any you can order online. If you can’t find any online which I doubt than you are too stupid to find it and you don’t deserve your chocolate.

I am not saying that fair trade labels are the ultimate solution to an intrinsic problem of market economy.

But if the problem itself is found in market economy, so is the solution.

Production methods are what you want them to be.

Merry Christmas from Ghana everybody.


Also: sign this petition and support them:


One thought on “Bittersweet Chocolate

  1. I totally share your view on chocolate production in Ghana and other Westafrican countries and thank you for raising that issue, especially right now during chocolate loaded christmas time! Supporting fair trade by bying certified chocolate is a direct possibility to influence market structures.

    But there is more that can be done: The European campaign “Make Chocolate Fair!” fights for justice and sustainability in cocoa production and trade. A petition was set up to put pressure on the chocolate industry. SIGN THE PETITION AND EXPRESS YOUR DISAGREEMENT with current conditions in cocoa cultivation and purchasing practices of chocolate companies!! Make a statement against the exploitation of cocoa farmers! Prompt chocolate companies to take responsible steps for improving the living and working conditions of cocoa farmers and workers and enhance sustainable and diverse agricultural practices.

    Sign here:

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