Politics: When Chocolate Isn’t Love, by Pranada Devi

The chocolate makers do a brisk business at this time of year as chocolates have become a sort of default Valentines gift (or self-treat for singles). Something about the sweetness, the mouth-feel, the effects of theobromine (an alkaloid in chocolate that acts similar to caffeine), creates a rush in us that reminds us of the headiness of falling in love. It temporarily soothes away feelings of loneliness or wanting. But all nutritional question aside, if we knew more about where our chocolate came from, we might reconsider choosing it as an indulgence or expression of love.

A significant amount of the world’s chocolate is produced by child slaves, many of whom were trafficked. According to Oxfam, about 40% of the world’s cocoa supply comes from farms in West Africa supported by child slavery, mostly in Cote d’Ivoire (the Ivory Coast). The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA,) based in West Africa, has reported that more than 284,000 children are working in hazardous conditions on cocoa farms. The IITA’s report found that children harvest the cocoa beans from farms in the jungle using machetes. They spray crops with pesticides and insecticides, without masks, rubber boots or proper equipment. Children freed from the plantations have told of beatings, confinement and little or no pay – and don’t even know what becomes of the cocoa beans they grow, let alone what chocolate tastes like.

In 2001, the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) was set up to combat trafficking in the chocolate industry. The industry agreed to a non-binding agreement to monitor sources of cocoa and reduce support of the child slavery practice. The ICI promised to eradicate trafficking by 2005. But in a 2008 report by the International Labor Rights Forum, major chocolate companies have reported that proper tracking or monitoring of supply chains is “impossible.” The problem persists.

In addition to the impact on human lives, there is also an environmental toll. Increasing cocoa plantations have reduced rainforests in Ivory Coast from 12 million hectares in 1960 to less than 2.6 million hectares today. This has a devastating effect on biodiversity in the area.

Moreover, the Mars chocolate company is working with DNA experts, including the United States Department of Agriculture, to develop a genetically modified cacao bean that is supposed to be hardier, more pest resistant, and healthier to consume. The intention is that this genetically modified strain would “benefit” chocolate growers in West Africa – meaning that in a few years, 70% or more of the world’s cacao could be genetically modified.

A number of organizations have sprung up in the past decade to source fair trade chocolate, where farmers are paid a fair wage for their work and no forced labour of any kind is permitted. A “fair trade premium” included in the payment to farmers allows for social and economic investments such as education, health services, processing equipment, and loans to members. In many cases, the fair trade chocolate is also organically grown.

If you wish to partake of chocolate or give it as a gift, there are many fair trade organic chocolates now on the market. You should easily be able to find some at a natural food store, or by doing an Internet search. In addition, you may wish to consider that it takes a full annual harvest from one cocoa tree just to make one can of cocoa powder. As such, perhaps even fair trade chocolate is a treat best enjoyed sparingly.

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Pranada Devi is a government communications professional living in Toronto, Canada. She manages the Politics, Books and Activism sections for Parvati Magazine in addition to serving as Managing Editor for the magazine overall. She has followed politics at all levels for two decades. She serves as an advisor on marketing communications for Parvati’s various projects.