The Dark Side of Chocolate

On Halloween night, kids across the neighborhood can be heard howling with delight. Veins spiked with sugar and goody bags overflowing with Peanut Butter Cups and Hershey's bars propel tiny devils, ghouls and goblins from door to door.

Beyond the grinning jack-o-lanterns and just past the haunted house, the true horror of Halloween may be buried beneath the clever disguise of the seemingly sweet candy makers.  This July, major chocolate producers such as Mars, Hershey's and Nestle revealed that they were more about tricks than treats.

The truth behind the chocolate is anything but sweet. On the Ivory Coast of Africa, the origin of nearly half of the world's cocoa, hundreds of thousands of children work or are enslaved on cocoa farms. With poverty running rampant and average cocoa revenues ranging from $30-$108 per household member per year, producers have no choice but to utilize child labor for dangerous farming tasks. Some children, seeking to help their poor families, even end up as slaves on cocoa farms far from home. Slavery drags on and we are paying the slaveholder's wages.

In 2001, following an avalanche of negative publicity, the major chocolate companies agreed to a voluntary protocol to eliminate child labor on West African farms rather than face binding legislation from Congress that would have required them to label their products "slave free" -- a label none of the major chocolate companies would have qualified for.

But rather than accept responsibility for the low world cocoa prices which lay at the heart of the problem, the major chocolate manufacturers placed the blame on poor farmers for allowing their children to work, and adopted a plan which even if properly implemented would leave farmers without the income they needed to feed their families and keep their children in school. Under this plan -- to be monitored by the chocolate companies themselves -- consumers would also be denied any independent guarantee that child labor abuses were no longer occurring on West African farms.

When July rolled around, producers had failed to meet their deadline.  After four years passed without follow-through on a protocol that they had created, chocolate companies wanted four more years to reach a lesser goal. Instead of eliminating child labor on cocoa farms, they promised to reduce child labor by 50 percent in two West African countries by 2008, and these companies continue to deny not only responsibility for conditions on the farms which supply their cocoa, but to deny producers the only aspect of the production process they most certainly can control -- a fair price.  To put it simply, chocolate companies care more about profits than the fact that slaves are producing our chocolate.

Approximately 286,000 children between the ages of nine and twelve have been reported to work on cocoa farms on the Ivory Coast alone with as many as 12,000 likely to have arrived in their situation as a result of child trafficking. These children are often at risk of injury from machetes and exposure to harmful pesticides. With world cocoa prices so low, many farmers maintain their labor force through trafficking; West  African parents living in poverty often sell their kids to cocoa farmers for $50-$100 in hopes that the children will make some money on their own.

Sadly, although these children work 80 to 100 hours per week, children working on cocoa farms frequently make little or no money and are regularly beaten, starved, and exhausted. Most of these children will never even taste the final product that results from their suffering.

How can consumers tell whether or not the products they consume are produced by slaves? The $13 billion dollar chocolate industry is dominated by two firms: Hershey's and M&M's/Mars. Both of these companies use mostly Ivory Coast cocoa; their products are almost certainly produced partly by slaves.

Although these companies have publicly condemned and expressed outrage at the use of child slavery, they admit their ongoing purchase of Ivory Coast cocoa.  

Another major player in the cocoa industry is Nestle. Nestle recently made waves in the U.K. by introducing the first line of fair trade coffee from a major roaster in that country. But their continued refusal to extend a fair price to cocoa farmers and their children underlines the shallowness of their commitment.

As one of the largest chocolate manufacturers in the world and the third largest buyer of cocoa from the Ivory Coast, Nestle bears responsible for eliminating slave and child labor from the chocolate production processes. With processing, storage and export facilities throughout the Ivory Coast, Nestle is well aware of the tragically unjust labor practices taking place on the farms with which it continues to do business. The enormity of Nestle's profits (over $65 billion in annual sales) and its leveraged position in the food industry underline the company's culpability and capability to ensure a fair wage and fair labor practices.

Mars, Hershey's and Nestle argue that it would be impossible for them to control the labor practices of their suppliers, but a number of other large corporations have exemplified this possibility. These companies include Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Denman Island Chocolate, Divine, Gardners Candies, Green and Black's, Kailua Candy Company, Koppers Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolates, Montezuma's Chocolates, Newman's Own Organics, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics and The Endangered Species Chocolate Company.

The Ivory Coast does not currently produce any organic cocoa, so organic chocolates are unlikely to be tainted by slavery. A solution to the problem of child labor and slavery in cocoa production is on the rise; fair trade chocolate ensures that farmers receive a fair price for their product and that their labor force is not comprised of children or slaves.

Unlike free trade, fair trade is designed to provide fair exchanges with farmers and artisans. Fair trade ensures better lives by providing suppliers with enough money for health care, education for their children, and sustainable production methods. The major obstacle to a successful fair trade market is a lack of consumer demand. Fair trade chocolate (Fair Trade Certified and Fair Trade Federation labels) is now available at grocery stores and online, along with other Fair Trade products ranging from coffee to sneakers.

As consumers,our purchasing power can push major corporations to abolish child slavery; we can change the lives of children in West Africa beginning with something as simple as the type of chocolate we buy.

This Halloween, over five hundred households across the country will be offering fair trade Halloween treats. In addition, schools, churches and individuals will be calling and writing in to Nestle to demand a commitment to fair trade and an end to child slavery.  

Don't take candy from strangers. Know where your chocolate comes from and ensure that it was produced in a fair way for a fair price. Start by buying fair trade Halloween candy this month.


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