ARTS & CULTURE | The Dark Side of Chocolate

By Jessica Kirby

Senior Editor of The Green Gazette – 

Sweet, health decadent, and fulfilling—the stuff dreams, fantasies, love songs, and fairy tales are made of. The love of one’s life or the bane of another’s existence it has many names-—passion, guilty pleasure, aphrodisiac, stimulant, worst enemy, relaxant, and gift from the universe. Chocolate. We eat it, drink it, trade it, crave it, mend broken hearts with it, and curse the day we discovered it, but most people agree chocolate is one of the world’s loveliest inventions.

Above: Fair trade raw cacao from local growers before processing. Bogota (Colombia): Robinson Rendon, Chief of Production for Casa Luker, a Bogota-based international chocolate company, shows a batch of dried cocoa beans ready to be processed. Casa Luker gets about 10 percent of all of its raw cacao from Chocolate Colombia, a USAID-supported growers’ collective helping around 1,500 families throughout Colombia’s conflict torn region of Caucasia grow better cacao and get a fair price for their crop.

Above: Fair trade raw cacao from local growers before processing. Bogota (Colombia): Robinson Rendon, Chief of Production for Casa Luker, a Bogota-based international chocolate company, shows a batch of dried cocoa beans ready to be processed. Casa Luker gets about 10 percent of all of its raw cacao from Chocolate Colombia, a USAID-supported growers’ collective helping around 1,500 families throughout Colombia’s conflict torn region of Caucasia grow better cacao and get a fair price for their crop. Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti, USAID U.S Agency for International Development

Born in Mesoamerica where Theobroma cacao beans can be traced back to Mokaya and other pre-Olmec people, chocolate has roots in 1900 BC. The Aztecs considered cacao seeds a gift from Quetzalcoatl, God of Wisdom, and used the highly valuable seeds as currency. In its earliest form it was consumed as a warm drink—bitter and frothy and mixed with spices, wine, or corn puree. It arrived in Europe around the 16th century and sugar was added, engraving its place in contemporary history. By the 20th century it was considered staple and was even included as essential components in soldiers’ rations.

The sweet news about chocolate is, aside from eating enough of it to cause obesity or give yourself nausea, it is hard to hurt yourself with it. There isn’t any clear, proven scientific evidence that eating chocolate causes acne, constitutes an addiction, or harms the body’s functioning—in fact, some studies support the short-term lowering of blood pressure by consuming cocoa products. The upsides are many including feelings of happiness and contentment and all around joy from eating it, not to mention chemicals like flavonoids and theobromine. Since the majority of calories come from ingredients like milk, butter, and sugar, sticking with chocolate with 70 percent cacao or higher is the best choice, health-wise.

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Orley cuts cacao pods from the tree, Isla de la Amargura, Caceres, Antioquia (Colombia): Orley Blanquiceth, 37 years old, harvests cocoa in the family farm. Orley is from a small Colombian island only reachable by motorboat. When home in this community of just 300 residents, he helps his father Jose grow bananas and cacao in a small plot alongside Jose’s home. Orley, like many young men of his generation- has limited job options. USAID helps provide growers in Colombia’s coca belt with more stable and viable options to earn a living, such as growing cacao. The cacao project is one of many USAID-supported activities that work in areas long strained by civil conflict, rebuilding social connections and fomenting trust in governmental and other formal institutions. Photo: Thomas Cristofoletti, USAID U.S. Agency for International Development.

On the other side of the world from North America, it is a different story. The three major chocolate producers are responsible for 35 per cent of global chocolate production and rely heavily on GMO ingredients, rainforest depletion, and unfair human rights and labour practices. The cocoa industry has a terrible track record for slavery, child labour, and worker exploitation, especially in Western African countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast where nearly 70 per cent of the world’s supply is produced.

Tales from the Ivory Coast about slave farms, children being moved hundreds of miles from home to work in detrimental conditions for little or no pay or education are chilling and continue today despite the authorities’ meagre efforts.

Samlanchith Chanthavong, author of “Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire,” says children and adults are forced to work in hot, humid conditions with improper nutrition, inadequate tools, and no protection from harmful chemicals used in the process.

Workers are often beaten and tied up, or locked away and locked in at night. Some farms claim children and exploited workers are free to come and go but they don’t leave because they are hundreds of miles from home with no money and plenty of fear. According to Chanthavong, the only way farm workers get out alive is when the Ivorian authorities find the farm, prove slavery is occurring, and worth together with local, national, and global authorities to have these workers released.

Community advocacy against unethical cocoa is well-developed and active, especially campaigns against giants like Hershey’s, Nestle, and Mars, but as a $60 billion industry it is a tough case to crack. The case comes down to economics and encompasses the typical capitalist cycle of maintaining a particular profit margin to appease stakeholders, and the matter is further complicated by the lack of regulation on reporting clearly where ingredients are sourced.

Cocoa may contain traces of slavery. Photo: Flickr,  Pleuntje

Cocoa may contain traces of slavery. Photo: Flickr, Pleuntje

Global Exchange has a widespread, ongoing campaign with schools and church groups pressuring World’s Finest Chocolate – producers of fundraising chocolate products – to purchase a percentage of its cocoa from Fair Trade co-operatives. Besides bringing awareness to Fair Trade and its elements, the project brings the issues to the forefront of conversations with children, who of course will rule the future.

Food Empowerment Project is a non-profit advocacy group with a mission to create a more just and sustainable world by recognizing the power of one’s food choices. According to FEP, the chocolate industry is being called upon to develop and financially support programs that support children who have been exploited in chocolate slavery. Despite strong advocacy efforts the largest companies do little to address the issues and many refuse to reveal their cocoa sources.

Consumer choice is by far the most powerful force in creating change in the chocolate industry. Because it is a luxury rather than an essential, chocolate is subject to selection and producers can, if enough people choose together, feel the effects of boycotting.

Unfortunately, consumers can’t rely solely on labels like “organic” or “Fair Trade” to get the skinny on ethical chocolate.

According to Clay Gordon, creator of the chocoholics’ website The Chocolate Life and recognized expert on all things cocoa, true sustainability is threefold and addresses environmental, economic, and social principles. Organic labels attest to environmental regulation and health components but say nothing of economics or social sustainability. “Fair Trade” addresses a number of important issues like fair wages, community co-ops, and fair labour practices, but the label costs farmers thousands of dollars that could have otherwise gone to their employees, lands, or communities.

Some companies, such as Newman’s Own Organics, which is both certified organic and Rainforest Alliance labelled, attain more than one label to boost their credibility. Newman’s Own has also gifted $400 million to charity, making it an attractive choice for savvy shoppers.

Equal Exchange fairly traded chocolate. Photo: Flickr, aolin.

Equal Exchange fairly traded chocolate. Photo: Flickr, aolin.

Watch for chocolate products with more than one label, who disclose their cocoa source as outside of West Africa, and who have the shortest possible supply chain. The price will be higher, but the experience and product will be superior.

FEP has produced a list of vegan chocolate it does and does not recommend based on investigations into where producers source their cacao. Please visit www.foodispower.org/chocolate-list/ for more information.

Slave Free Chocolate offers a great list of products that meet several criteria, but it is still important to check individual brands in case circumstances change. www.slavefreechocolate.org/ethical-chocolate-companies/

The CNN Freedom Project is a mainstream, in-depth look at the issues involving child slaves and the cocoa industry. Although presented in the typical “panel of expert” format, it is a valuable resource for looking at all the angles including economics, globalization, and the weight consumers and corporate interests hold.

Visit www.thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/category/chocolates-child-slaves/ for more information and to watch several videos including “Cocoa-nomics” a look at the money end of child slavery in the cocoa industry.

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