Monday, December 28, 2009

Chocolate: What is the True Cost?

In North America and Europe chocolate is consumed in enormous quantities by decent people who are unaware of the child abuse to which they may be contributing. Most cocoa farms are small, family run operations and the profits are limited although demand is high. In order to keep up with demand farmers need labourers in addition to their family members and children seeking work to support a better life are vulnerable to slave trafficking and unpaid, abusive working conditions on farms desperate to keep up with the demand for cocoa in the western world. The Ivory Coast, the region with the most cocoa farms, is also the region most unregulated and most likely to have children working on these farms in abusive conditions. Children sold to farmers by slave traffickers are not free to leave and are punished if caught trying to escape.

Although trafficking in children is illegal, it continues in West Africa to feed the demand for labour on the cocoa farms. Cocoa production is labour intensive but results in low earnings for the families who are usually depending on it as their sole income source. Even with most or all family members working on the farm, additional labourers are needed and many children can be found working on these farms. Often these children are denied the opportunity to attend school, with up to one third of them never having attended school at all. With the low earnings for cocoa farmers, these children are not being paid and are often living in squalid conditions. They are poorly fed, often subsisting on a little corn paste. They may be beaten for poor performance or attempts to escape. They work using no protective equipment to prevent injury or illness from machetes pesticides and insecticides. Michel Larouche, the West African regional director of Save The Children Canada, says,
"In Canada, Europe and America, what we have on our shelves is cheap, such as coffee, chocolate bars...if we put a stop to child trafficking the price of certain things---cotton shirts, coffee, candy bars---will rise. The reality is if your products are this cheap, it's because of this situation."

An Iowa senator, Thomas Harkin, led an investigation into slave labour practices in West Africa. He introduced legislation for a "slave free" label on chocolate but the bill was not enacted due to pressure from the large chocolate companies who claimed it unfairly penalized them for something they could not control. They argued that if they stopped purchasing cocoa from these impoverished African farmers even more people would suffer. Nestle, the largest chocolate products company in the world, signed an agreement along with the ILO (International Labour Organization) to certify chocolate as not having been acquired through slave labour. This certification practice was to be put in place by July of 2005 but it never happened. Bernard Callebaut, large producer of chocolate, claims it is unaware of any slave labour involved in the cocoa it purchases from West Africa, and that none would be tolerated. The company also admits that they could never guarantee the absence of slave labour since the cocoa/chocolate market is so full of middlemen.

Although it is a complicated problem, solutions are not unavailable. The Fair Trade Organization has succeeded in making slave free chocolate available to consumers who care. Certified Fair Trade and Certified Organic labels are a reliable guide to ethical chocolate. The farms that supply cocoa for these products are involved in fair labour practices and small farm cooperatives that help to improve their communities' schools, hospitals and infrastructure. The purchaser of the cocoa pays an above market price, understanding that current market prices are low and support only poverty level incomes for the farming families. The increased payment makes the lives of families and their communities better. Of course, the higher purchase price is passed on to the consumer, to you and me, but I have no trouble considering it a donation of support for these African farmers.

When I consider the taste difference between the cheap chocolate candy so readily available in every supermarket and bargain priced retail outlet (yes Wal Mart I'm talking about YOU), and a good piece of Fair Trade chocolate like those sold by Cocoa Camino or Green and Black, and realize that those Hershey hugs and kisses with their insipid chocolate flavour are supporting the continuation of child slave labour, I have no difficulty paying more for chocolate that is really worth it. I wish I had known all of this sooner in my career as a mother, and insisted on only ethical chocolate for Christmas, Valentine's, Easter and Hallowee'n. Even some of the purveyors of quality chocolate are not untainted by the slavery practices now known to abound in West Africa. We are all free to make choices, live in comfort and consume too much chocolate, please let us do it with good conscience.

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Karen@StrictlySimpleStyle said...

This is very interesting. I'm glad for the information. My brother was just telling me that his church sells Free trade coffee and chocolate to help support this cause. I'll pass this post to him.

Maria Killam said...

Certainly a good post for this time of year, I can't eat cheap chocolate anymore simply because of the taste! Thanks for enlightening us!

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