Bitter Chocolate: How Slavery Fuels The Cocoa Industry

More than 70% of the world’s cocoa supply comes from one place: West Africa. Ghana and the Ivory Coast provide the most to huge companies like Hershey’s and Nestle. However, that cocoa is farmed by slaves, including many children. The injustice remained a secret for many years, but investigative journalists and organizations managed to spread the word. Despite efforts to change the industry, the 2018 Cocoa Barometer estimated that 2.1 million children slaves work in West Africa. What can be done?

The life of a cocoa slave

Farmers don’t use slaves because they want to. It’s a necessity based on the economy. As the chocolate industry grows – 60% of the Ivory Coast’s revenue from export comes from cocoa alone – cocoa farmers are paid less and less. Data shows they make less than $2 per day. Poverty isn’t limited to just cocoa farmers, either, it’s widespread. This means children as young as 5-6 years old have to leave home to support their families. Sometimes, children are even abducted by human traffickers and forced to work. A more common scenario is that cocoa farmers use their own children as free labor. Most are unable to attend school, so the cycle of poverty continues.

Work on a cocoa farm is hard. The day begins at dawn. Chores include clearing forests with chainsaws, cutting bean pods down from high up in trees using a machete, and carrying 100-pound bags. To get at the cocoa beans, kids have to use the machete again, and it’s very easy to accidentally hit their own hands, arms, and legs. Most children bear scars. In addition to the back-breaking labor, slaves are exposed to dangerous agricultural chemicals. Insects are a huge problem in the tropical weather of West Africa, so slaves spray the pods without any protection. When they aren’t working, kids are fed only bananas and corn paste, and sleep in windowless buildings without access to clean water or bathrooms.

Efforts to change the industry

Once journalists exposed the truth about the chocolate industry, the world was outraged. In the United States, two Democrats created the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which required big chocolate makers to stop the “worst” forms of child slavery, which are defined by the International Labor Organization. Using machetes is an example of a practice that’s illegal. The chocolate companies had until 2005, but that was pushed back three times. Currently, the goal is to reduce child labor in Ghana and the Ivory Coast by 70% by 2020.

Other projects aim to tackle slavery’s root problem: poverty. In 2014, The World Cocoa Foundation, comprised of 10 of the largest chocolate companies in the world, poured $500 million into training programs for 300,000 Ivory Coast and Ghana farmers. The hope was that their farms could become more productive, so they wouldn’t need child labor. Unfortunately, not much change occurred as a result, and in some places, slavery got worse. The 2018 Cocoa Barometer number – 2.1 million – is larger than in 2013-2014. Experts say the efforts by the chocolate industry just aren’t significant enough to deal with the problem.

How to choose your chocolate

What can you do as a consumer to ensure you aren’t exploiting child labor? There are several terms the industry uses, but what do they mean exactly?

Organic – This term refers only to the environmental and processing requirements the chocolate went through. It means the cocoa beans were grown without pesticides (for at least three years) and without GMOs, but it doesn’t mean slaves weren’t involved.

The Rainforest Alliance label – This certification means the product meet requirements about forced labor, coercion, environmental sustainability, and more. To get the label, farms must score at least 50% in each of the 10 criteria, and score an 80% overall.

Fair trade – This means that farmers received a fair wage, used fair labor practices, and support local communities. However, it’s an expensive certification to receive.

Other buzzwords that help you choose chocolate not produced by slave labor include “direct trade” and “single-origin.” The phrase “bean-to-bar” is also a good sign, because it means the company made the chocolate themselves from the physical cocoa bean. South American chocolate is also widely-believed to be slave-free since no child labor has been documented, so that’s another place you can get your chocolate from. Why don’t the major companies just get their chocolate from there instead of West Africa? It would destroy those countries’ economies and make the root problem of poverty worse. As a consumer, however, you can show you are willing to pay more for slave-free chocolate by choosing a South American bar.

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