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The dark side of chocolate

Q&A with Carol Off, author of Bitter Chocolate

Last Updated February 2007

Carol Off is co-host of CBC Radio's As It Happens and the former host of Counterspin on CBC Newsworld. She is an award-winning documentary maker and author. Her most recent book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, chronicles the international cocoa industry and the machinations behind Big Chocolate.

If you drink coffee, you've probably seen coffee beans at the grocery store or the local coffee shop. Maybe you even grind your own.

But even if you eat chocolate, it's unlikely that you've seen cocoa beans, the pinkish almond-like seeds of the cacao tree.

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Video: CBC's Carol Off talks about her book Bitter Chocolate [Runs 5:22]

The tree, a native of South America, now grows around the world, but only in a narrow band near the equator. Almost half of our cocoa comes from Ivory Coast in West Africa, with Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil rounding out the world's top five cocoa producers.

Harvesting and preparing the beans is labour intensive, and various economic and government forces have driven the price of the bean further and further down. Some cocoa farmers have resorted to abusive labour practices to produce the bean and satisfy the world's sweet tooth.

Carol Off, co-host of CBC Radio's As It Happens, has written a book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, about the history of cocoa and the conditions under which it is grown and harvested.

What's life like for people who grow cocoa beans?

It used to be not bad. During the times when Ivory Coast and West Africa had an economic miracle, it was very good.

There was a lot of labour for itinerant workers and there was enough profit from the cocoa to fund a lot of farms and farmers. But in the past 10 or 15 years, it's been increasingly bad for farmers, as the price of the beans is not only volatile, but usually extremely low. They have been unable to properly finance their farms or to pay for labour. They've resorted to all sorts of abusive labour practices that were not part of West Africa before then.

What happened in the last 10 years to cause this?

The price has always been very volatile. What finally caught up to them in the last 10 years is something that occurred in the 1980s, when the neoliberalism of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund stepped in to rearrange the affairs of African countries that had taken on huge debt, of which Ivory Coast was one.

Those countries had to dismantle all of their programs, including their co-operatives, their price structures, their subsidies and much of their social safety net.

Since those structural adjustment programs began to affect economies all over Africa, a very small group of multinational corporations developed a complete monopoly over the marketing, purchase and sale of the cocoa beans, and by virtue of that, they could control the profits while driving down any costs they had.

And any business or industry looks to the weakest place to drive their costs down. In this case, it was the farmers, who have little or no organization, and no representation and no knowledge of how the price structures work.

They were unable to negotiate better prices for themselves. The farm gate price kept being driven further and further down, and those farmers suffered the most from any volatile swings in the bean prices, which were often down rather than up.

What kind of labour practices are the farmers resorting to to deal with this?

The first thing that happened was that they were unable to pay the itinerant labour that has been for generations coming to Ivory Coast from very poor countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. So, they looked for cheaper labour sources.

First of all, they employed their own families and their own children, taking them out of school, often. And then, when that wasn't enough, they began to look for even cheaper sources of labour. To an alarming degree, they began to turn toward child labour, where the children have no ability to negotiate their wages.

As more and more children were coming into Ivory Coast from other countries looking for work, a whole business of child trafficking developed. Criminal activity always rushes to fill voids like this. They began to pick up these children, and take them in groups into Ivory Coast and sell them into systems of indentured labour. These child traffickers have developed a very large network in West Africa.

In addition, the farmers go to Mali and Burkina Faso looking for labour, and the parents of the children quite often are selling the kids to those farmers or just asking those farmers to take their kids because they can't feed them anymore.

The border guards that I talked to, who are very sensitive to the issue of child trafficking, were trying to stop some of the children who are flooding into Ivory Coast. They said they would find children, repatriate them to their families, and the next week, the same kids were back at the border.

The families are desperate for anything at this point, and that desperation is preyed upon by the traffickers, and the traffickers are catering to an industry created by the very low price of cocoa beans, which is caused by multinational corporations who suck huge profits out of West Africa and put extremely little back in.

One of the ironies you expose in your book is that these children don't really know what they're growing and have never seen chocolate in its final form.

That was perhaps the most surprising thing. It's the fact that not just the children, but their parents and their grandparents, who have been cultivating cocoa for generations, have no idea what we do with it.

When I asked them, "What are the beans for?" they said, "They're for you. We get them because you people do something with them."

I asked, "What do we do with them?"

"We have no idea," they said.

But I'm not thinking, "Oh, these poor children. They should have chocolate." I'm thinking, "These poor children should have shoes. They should have schools. They need health care."

Children in our part of the world just inhale chocolate bars on the way to school, and that cheap and pleasant treat is something that represents two or three days' labour of a child in Africa, who is unable to go to school.

Have governments done anything recently to help solve the problem?

There was an effort in 2002 by Eliot Engel and Tom Harkin, two Democratic congressmen in the United States, to create a law that would require a label on chocolate saying no children were abused in the making of this cocoa, very much like tuna fish carrying a label that says no dolphins were subjected to drag netting in making this tuna.

Big Cocoa went crazy, because they know how extraordinarily difficult that would be. They don't have any contact with the farmers and no way to control that.

Big Cocoa first denied that there was a problem and then, when confronted with the evidence, said they'd fix it voluntarily. So, the congressmen backed down and agreed to a voluntary protocol to ensure that no abusive child labour practices would be part of their industry by July 1, 2005, a date which came and went. Not a single thing changed, except for some very small pilot projects.

Since then, they have agreed that by 2008, they will do half of what they originally committed to do by 2005.

To me, it's the same pattern we've seen over the ages. The chocolate industry, since the 19th century, when they were confronted with abusive labour practices, they try to get out of it, they shuffle their feet and eventually they move to another country.

What we're seeing now with cocoa is that increasingly the production of beans is moving out of West Africa and into other countries where there isn't as much attention being paid to the issue.

There has also been a civil war going on in Ivory Coast. Did that make it more difficult to produce the beans? Is that another reason to get out of the country?

Oddly enough, during the time when war and ethnic cleansing were really pronounced, there was no interruption to the production of beans arriving at port, and in fact, there was an increase in bean shipments out of the port of San Pedro during that time.

What is getting more difficult for the farmers is that, because of the war, a large part of their profits are being diverted by the Ivorian government into purchasing arms. So, we legitimately have what you would call "blood chocolate."

Also, since the war, it's getting more difficult for the child trafficking networks to bring children into Ivory Coast because they have to cross a front line. That has diminished the amount of bonded labour from Mali and Burkina Faso.

And because the farmers are losing even more money because of these high tariffs and taxes for the war, and because it's so difficult to get labour, they're not taking care of their trees very well. The tree stock is quite ill and not being replenished. We'll eventually see that the stock of cacao trees and the production of cocoa will start to diminish over the next 10 years.

Eventually, these things will catch up with the farmers themselves, at the same time as Big Chocolate is moving its production to other countries.

You visited fair trade farms as part of the research for the book. Did the labour practices there provide some hope for the industry?

Fair trade farms were better because there was a minimum amount of health care and education being provided, but the downside of the system is that it represents a tiny percentage of the farmers in the field. It's very difficult to organize those fair trade co-operatives.

The other problem is that it's very bureaucratic. There's a huge amount of paperwork because fair trade logos require an amazing amount of verification that all these standards are being met. It requires quite high skills in reading and writing to do the work, so the farmers usually hire people.

In a co-op in Belize, it was [CAW head] Buzz Hargrove's cousin who was doing the paperwork, and he said he found it quite complex even for people from our part of the world.

For people who want to buy chocolate, is fair trade the best way to go? Does a chocolate boycott accomplish anything?

In the end, consuming fair trade chocolate is better than non-fair trade chocolate, but it represents very few farmers.

Child labour practices have to be fought not at the level of consumers, though that helps a bit, but at the level of government. I think one has more power as a citizen than as a consumer.

The only solution to the issue of abusive child labour practices in cocoa is to pay farmers a decent price. And the only way they're going to get paid a decent price is if they're able to organize, if they have decent co-operatives and government departments that can help them, and if they have access to the information required to negotiate a decent price for themselves. They don't have any access to that information because it's controlled by a monopoly, a cartel that has access to the tools of trade - the commodities markets and the stock markets of the world - which are all on computer. The farmers don't even have electricity.

In places like Ghana, right next door to Ivory Coast, where there is a much stronger government structure, a much stronger support system, where the price of the bean is being negotiated for the farmers at the higher levels of co-operatives and governments, the farmers are much better off. I found much better farms, much higher knowledge of how to conduct their affairs and a lot more places where there was school and health care, and the abusive labour practices were minimal.

I discourage a boycott because I think cocoa is a good crop for the farmers and I don't think a boycott will do any good. Fair trade is, I suppose, the only way to go, but the way to work on change is to buy your fair trade chocolate while writing your letter to government. They both have to be done.

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