As I write this I have a double batch of brownies baking in the oven. Nothing, after all, is better than a batch of fresh baked brownies…nothing, perhaps, except said brownies couched under a hefty scoop of vanilla ice cream and double whipped cream.
Unfortunately, the key ingredient in brownies – chocolate -has a distinctly unsustainable source flying strongly in the face of ‘business better’. If we’re going to borrow the oft cited CSR definition of sustainability, that is planet, people, and profits, chocolate is only good at one: profits, and even then only for the manufacturing overlords whose names we often see on the labels.
What’s hidden behind the pretty packaging of Hershey, Nestle, and Cadbury is a legacy of literal slavery, child labor and environmental degradation. In West Africa it’s not uncommon for children to be kidnapped to work in the fields. They are beaten to keep them docile, those who try to escaped are beaten even worse, and occasionally, children are killed. Most never see their families again.
In an interview with The Food Revolution Documentary filmmaker Brian Woods who has covered the chocolate fields in the Ivory Coast states:
“It isn’t the slavery we are all familiar with and which most of us imagine was abolished decades ago. Back then, a slave owner could produce documents to prove ownership. Now, it’s a secretive trade which leaves behind little evidence. Modern slaves are cheap and disposable. They have three things in common with their ancestors. They aren’t paid, they are kept working by violence or the threat of it, and they are not free to leave.”
Approximately 60 percent of the worldwide cocoa production comes from West Africa, with 40% of the beans harvested from plantations in the Ivory Coast, a particularly problematic country for abuse.
As Canadian investigative reporter Carol Off details in her book Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet, conventional cocoa production involves large-scale use of fertilizers, insecticides and other chemicals that degrade air, land and water. The struggle to control market share often involves payments to armed thugs and corrupt government officials to ensure the raw product reaches port. Efforts to reveal the truth about cocoa production can leave behind a bloody trail: in April 2004 French-Canadian journalist Guy André Kieffer, was kidnapped in broad after his reports of governmental corruption, including siphoning off and laundering the fees and taxes imposed on cocoa farmers—money that ended up in the hands of prominent Ivorian officials—hit the air. He hasn’t been seen since.
Human rights abuses? Check. Environmental degradation? Check. A populace blind to the suffering their consumption is causing? Double check. As long as this kind of wholesale slavery, environmental degradation, occurs what hope is there for these nations to develop their ecosystems, their systems of equality and, well, sustainability?
This is a big deal because trade agreements between developed and developing countries for the most part only allow developing countries to export commodities. If they are unable to get a fair price for the few products they can export, what hope do they have of elevating their economies within the traditional economic paradigm?
So what is a chocoholic with a conscience to do?
The first step is to recognize that cacao production doesn’t have to be so awful.
A 2007 edition of NPR’s morning Edition entitled How Chocolate Can Save the Planet shows that cocoa farming can be sustainable. In the piece it talks about how cocoa farming using a method called cabruca, in which cacao trees are grown under the canopy of larger rainforests, cannot only reduce the rate of forest degradation, but also possible revitalize rainforest land that was lost. Although the process gets fewer trees to the acre it avoids many of the drawbacks of planting cacao trees on open land: fewer diseases, fewer insects.
The second is to vote with your dollars. Purchase Fair Trade Organic Chocolate or sustainably grown chocolate. Ideally you’d get single sourced chocolate that can be traced back to a specific farm or region. We’re fortunate: there are a wide number of more ethical alternatives, but the fact remains as long as the market mechanism is there for products grown in this manner, they will continue to be grown. Chocolate after all is a luxury not a necessity and it is the bitterest bit of irony that those who sacrifice their very lives to bring it to us never get to sample its sweet essence.
Finally, write your favorite chocolate makers and tell them you refuse to purchase their conventional projects, explain why, and tell them you’ll exhort your friends to do the same.