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A history of exploitation in chocolate

  • Published on
    April 26, 2022
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  • Category:
    Child Slavery, Human Trafficking, Supply Chain
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“Really good chocolate is the most perfect and exquisite food on the planet,” Carol Off tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision. But the production of this sweet treat has a dark side we cannot ignore.

Annabelle Quince and Anna Kelsey-Sugg explore the history of exploitation in the cocoa industry, as well as the steps toward truly ethical chocolate.

How chocolate spread the globe

Cacao, the bean that cocoa is made from, can be traced back to the Amazon River basin in South America and the Mesoamerican region. In the pre-hispanic era, indigenous communities would crush the beans to make a thick, bitter liquid which they drank.

It wasn’t until the 16th century that cacao made it to Europe, brought by Spanish conquistadors. And chocolate as we know it didn’t exist until the 19th century, when the Swiss first mixed cocoa with milk powder.

Off, author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, describes this moment as a breakthrough for the cocoa market. She tells Rear Vision: “Not only was it something that was easy to sell, and to transport and to package, but it was also affordable to the masses.”

How exploitation became pervasive in chocolate supply chains

As the world fell in love with chocolate, the demand for cacao beans surged. In 1855, Portugal brought cacao to the West African island of São Tomé where the climate was optimal for cacao production, according to Dr. Ingrid Fromm, a researcher at the Bern University of Applied Sciences.

From there, cacao production spread to the mainland, and today, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Cameroon produce 70% of the world’s cacao.

The producers of cacao in West Africa are mainly small-scale, resource-poor farmers, Dr. Fromm explains. Indeed, a 2015 report revealed that cocoa farmers generally live below the $1-per-day poverty line, according to Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand.

International pressure drove down the price of cocoa, and farmers lacked influence in supply chains to be able to negotiate a fair price. They are now “really forced to take the price that these very large companies can force through their power in the marketplace,” according to Dr. Fromm.

To make ends meet, many West African farmers turned to what is known as “family-type labor”, including child labor.

Pressure began mounting against chocolate companies in the early 2000s. NGOs were campaigning against child trafficking and slavery in the sector, as Ms. Off told Rear Vision:

“[The NGOs reported] that it appeared there was a form of slave labour and … children being moved from not just other regions, but other countries, into the cocoa-producing regions in order to work on these farms for no money.”

Chocolate companies initially denied any knowledge of exploitation, according to Ms Off. But research carried out in the last two decades has confirmed the cases of hazardous child labor and child trafficking in supply chains.

The road to a reformed chocolate sector

In recent years, there has been some improvement in chocolate companies’ recognition of and willingness to address exploitation in their supply chains. Many companies are working toward greater traceability, stronger child labor monitoring and boosting farmers’ incomes.

Dr. Fromm reflects on the importance of this change for consumers:

“We … want to consume a product where we know that we’re providing a good income for people at the source and [we’re] not being a driving force of a difficult situation for farmers.”

Ms. Off says that buying certified chocolate may be one way of partially mitigating the problem. However, she also calls on consumers to pressure their governments to take action:

“I think that the only way this changes is if you start insisting that your government changes laws and makes it impossible for any product, including chocolate, to come into your country that has … bad labour practices in it.”

Join the movement

Major chocolate companies have the power and the responsibility to ensure they are not profiting from exploitation in their supply chains. That’s why the Freedom United community is urging them to play their part in transforming the industry. We’re calling on companies to work together with farmers in their supply chains to find and implement solutions which will ensure no child or adult is exploited in cocoa. Join us today.


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6 months ago

we need people to stop child labor! I don’t want to feel guilty every time I eat a chocolate bar!

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