World History & Research Reports

HISTORY TODAY: Dark Past of Chocolate Including Slavery & Child Labour

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#AceHistoryDesk – Chocolate has a dark history. Here’s why you should know what you’re biting in to

A blurred figure in yellow beanie holds a family-sized chocolate bar out in front of her, taking up the front of field.
The production of cacao, chocolate’s main ingredient, is  linked to child slavery.(Unsplash: Tamas Pap)none

You can almost taste the words when author Carol Off describes her favourite food.

“Really good chocolate is the most perfect and exquisite food on the planet, that actually melts at the same temperature … to that of your body,” Ms Off tells ABC RN’s Rear Vision.

“Pure” chocolate is derived from cacao, the name for the unprocessed bean. And once the bean has been processed, ground and roasted, it’s known as cocoa.

But while the end product might be incomparably tasty, the production of the cacao bean has been linked to farmer exploitation, corporate apathy, and adult and child slave labour.

Ms Off says knowing about the dark side of chocolate production doesn’t preclude enjoying the product – but it should compel us to take certain actions.

How cacao moved around the world

Cacao trees have been traced back to both the Mesoamerican region – present-day Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras – and also the Amazon river basin in South America, explains Ingrid Fromm, a researcher at the Bern University of Applied Sciences.

In pre-Hispanic times, the Mayans, Aztecs and Olmec cultures greatly valued cacao. They consumed it crushed up in a thick and bitter beverage, says Dr Fromm, who is also a board member of the Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa.

Spanish conquistadors who came to Mexico in the 16th century brought the exotic drink back to Spain. From there, cacao was transported into the rest of Europe, she explains.

Then, in the late 19th century, Switzerland became the first country to add milk powder to the cocoa, creating milk chocolate and the first chocolate bars.

“This was a huge breakthrough for the market of cocoa and for industrialised food products,” Ms Off, who is the author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, says.

“Not only was it something that was easy to sell, and to transport and to package, but it was also affordable to the masses.”

And that’s when the trouble began.

Increased demand leads to serious problems

As the popularity of chocolate grew, so too did the demand for cacao beans. To keep up, cacao was transported from the Americas to the African continent.

In 1855, the Portuguese brought cacao to the island of Sao Tome off the West African coast, where a very humid, tropical climate was ideal for cacao production, Dr Fromm says.

Eventually, the bean made its way from the island to the mainland. 

Today 70 per cent of cacao production takes place in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Nigeria and Cameroon.

And as at 2021, about 5 million tonnes of processed cacao beans were produced worldwide.

Dr Fromm says cacao is mainly produced by small-scale and “very resource-poor” producers.

These farmers do not have the same economic power as the large chocolate corporations, and the price they’re able to get for their cacao beans has been decreasing.

Molly Harriss Olson, CEO of Fairtrade Australia and New Zealand, and the former chair of the global board of Fairtrade, said its 2015 report showed that in the cocoa industry “farmers everywhere in the world are living below [the] $1-a-day poverty line”.

“As the … international pressure grew to bring the price down, it became untenable for [family farms] to try and produce it at that price,” Ms Off says.

Two hands pull apart a large yellow fruit with white beans inside it.
Many cacao bean farmers in West Africa are living below the poverty line.(Unsplash: Rodrigo Flores)none

She says farmers who lack power or influence in their supply chains “are really forced to take the price that these very large companies can force through their power in the marketplace”.

That means “family-type labour” is common in West Africa, and particularly Ghana and the Ivory Coast, Dr Fromm says.

“If you’re a producer that has maybe more than two hectares of land, you may hire labour for that particular season, the harvest season, but it tends to be family labour.

“This is why we also know that there are cases of child labour. And this also has to do with the fact that the producers are paid very little money for the cacao beans, and poverty is also a driving force behind child labour,” she says.

In 2012, the then-CEO of World Vision Tim Costello said that 61 per cent of the children who work on cocoa farms didn’t get to go to school “so we get to eat cheap chocolate”.

Indeed research undertaken by Tulane University in New Orleans found that in 2013/14, 2.26 million children were working in cocoa production in the Ivory Coast and Ghana. 

Ms Off says chocolate companies denied knowledge of such practices when NGOs first raised alarms.

“[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,” she says.

As pressure mounted in the early 2000s, including within the US Congress, “it became a political interest to question whether the chocolate companies were involved in some pretty bad practices in order to produce their product”, Ms Off says.

But, in 2008, Fortune magazine reported that “little progress has been made”.

And according to the same publication in 2016, approximately 2.1 million children in West Africa “still do the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa”

Conflict-free chocolate?

There has been some improvement since then, says Dr Fromm. Today many bigger companies are working to ensure that farmers are paid a living income. She hopes that income continues to increase over the next decade.

“This, of course, is very important for consumers in Australia and in Europe and in different parts of the world because 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.”

But, rather than change driven by consumers, Ms Off wants to see it come from the top.

“I will never tell people to stop eating chocolate, because I love it and I will continue to eat it. How can we not?” she says.

“To some extent, [we can] mitigate the problems with buying Fairtrade chocolate.

“But 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.

“So enjoy your luxury, enjoy these moments. But let’s change the laws and start to see these practices come under the scrutiny of international labour practices.”

#AceNewsDesk report ………..Published: Apr.27:  2022:

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