Chocolate is a perfect gift, a comforting snack and even a health food, thanks to its many antioxidants. Rumor has it he might even work as an aphrodisiac. It is therefore not surprising that the chocolate industry raises billions of dollars every year.
However, there is also a dark side to chocolate.
Like a cultural anthropologist who has done years of research on food and drink in Europe and North America, I have come to understand the close relationship between culinary traditions and social inequalities.
In a course I teach on the anthropology of food, chocolate is one of many food items I cover in the course as a clue to understanding social class relations locally and globally, including human trafficking.
Labor exploitation, especially child labor, is one of the most troublesome ways in which global chocolate is linked to inequality.
History of chocolate
Chocolate can be dates back to the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. The Olmecs were the first to transform the cocoa plant into chocolate, around 1750 BC. AD The Olmecs used chocolate in religious rituals and as medicine. It has also been used, as noted by anthropologists Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe, by the Mayans and Aztecs throughout the 15th century.
However, the chocolate used in ritual life was a far cry from the chocolates we enjoy today. In fact, it was very bitter. Hernan Cortes, the famous Spanish explorer, is said to have brought cocoa back to Spain in the early 16th century; there it was mixed with sugar and honey as a drink. It was not before 17th century that chocolate was consumed throughout Europe, first among the aristocracy.
The invention of the cocoa press in the 19th century enabled manufacturers to associate sugar with the fatty butter extracted from the beans. The mixture was then poured into molds and sold, as well ushering in the popularity of chocolate among the European masses.
Sugar cane was grown by enslaved West Africans in the Caribbean and the Americas as part of the Atlantic trade. Refined sugar cane made its way to England, where it was consumed by the working class as a source of quick energy and a way to assuage hunger.
European goods then made their way to Africa in exchange for slaves, in what the anthropologist Sidney Mintz noted in his 1985 book “Softness and Poweras a “trading triangle”. It was the Caribbean sugar produced by enslaved West Africans in the 19th century that made chocolate palatable. The bond with slavery does not end there.
Children as cheap labor
At the beginning of the 19th century, a period marked by colonialism, the British introduced cocoa plants to West Africa, where growing conditions were ideal. The plants need warm, humid growing conditions common to the rainforests of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.
Cocoa plantations are still active there: mostly small and with poor owners. Harvesting and processing cocoa is labor intensive and many of these indigent farmers simply do not have the financial means or adequate family labor to make cocoa farming viable. And so to save money they turn to children – often from the age of 5 years, but more generally between 10 and 12 years. The beans are in pods that have to be opened with a machete, which makes the work quite dangerous, especially for children.
Lawyer Erika George notes that the vast majority of children end up in the cocoa plantations because of the traffic. Not all but many children come from Mali, especially from very poor rural villages. Reporters found that many children are approached by traffickers and says they will earn good wages on the cocoa plantations. They agree to work to help their family financially.
As journalist Miki Mistrati shows in the documentary “The dark side of chocolatethe traffickers then take the children to Côte d’Ivoire or Ghana, where they are sold to farmers. The traffickers themselves are aided by local militias. The children who end up on the farms often work 14 to 16 hours a day. They are even expected to carry heavy beanbags and be beaten if they stumble or collapse.
It is difficult to obtain exact figures on the number of children who worked in the cocoa plantations. International Labor Organization estimates 1.56 million in Ivory Coast and Ghana alone
Given the vast financial network involved in the chocolate business, it is dangerous work for journalists. Mistrati used hidden cameras and posed as tourists. He mentions a French journalist who disappeared pursuing the story of childhood slavery.
Tell a story
In 2021, six Malian men filed a lawsuit against Nestlé USA and Cargill, claiming they had been trafficked from their villages and forced to work on cocoa plantations. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court with a majority decision that chocolate companies cannot be sued in the United States for abuses that occurred elsewhereincluding for child slavery on African farms.
The big chocolate companies may not be directly involved in child trafficking, as they buy the cocoa beans from merchant suppliers. Indeed, eight of the largest chocolate companies signed a protocol in 2001 which condemned child labor and child slavery. But that did not commit the industry to ending this practice.
Then there are the organizations responsible for fair trade and the UTZ labels which seek to guarantee consumers fair labor practices in the chocolate sector, although this is not an ultimate guarantee that children were not exploited in the production process more generally. It should also be noted that the The United States Department of Labor has also taken a strong stance against the exploitation of children in cocoa plantations.
This is a strong argument against labor abuses, especially when it comes to children, and to that end we all have some responsibility as consumers.