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The Ethics of Chocolate

Cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast.
A small-time farmer pruning a cocoa tree in Ivory Coast, where most of the world's output is grown, along with Ghana. Cocoa farmers and laborers make a pittance in the $100 billion a year industry.

Given longstanding reports of slavery, economic exploitation and corruption in the West African cocoa trade, how guilty should you feel about eating a chocolate bar?

How about one made with cocoa marketed under the fair-trade umbrella – a loose international system aimed at providing growers with fair prices while also imposing fair labor standards and providing community benefits like schools?

And what role should the international community play in this public-private realm?

Cocoa comes from a number of hot, poverty-stricken countries where it is mostly grown by farmers with small fields and rudimentary tools who rarely earn more than a few dollars a day.

West Africa accounts for about 60 percent to 70 percent of the world’s output, and Ivory Coast and Ghana claim about 60 percent of that, industry figures say. The global chocolate market generates nearly $100 billion a year, according to some studies, but just a few pennies for each dollar end up in the pockets of West African growers.

With so little income coming their way, it is often reported that cocoa producers in this hard-pressed part of the world depend on children to grow and harvest the beans that supply the globe with chocolate candies, cakes, ice cream and other treats. The growers themselves are exploited as well, critics say. Industry buyers, whether private or government-run, are said to use rigged scales and other shady tactics to pay below-market prices and are able to get away with this year after year because farmers are literally starved for cash by the time the annual harvest finally rolls around.

Another big chunk of the money chain disappears as it passes through the government boards and officials running the export trade, industry critics say. This money is meant to cover the cost of marketing, fertilizer, spraying, new equipment, transport, storage and agricultural research. But where the money actually goes is often hard to say. Over the last decade or so, a number of aid groups active in West Africa have denounced the cocoa trade and jumped in to promote fair trade as a cure-all.

“Fair Trade certification ensures that farmers receive a fair price, allows farmers to invest in techniques that bring out the flavors of the region, and strictly prohibits slave and child labor,” says one certification program, Fair Trade USA.

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But a new book on the West African cocoa trade, “Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa,” by Orla Ryan, essentially dismisses the fair-trade movement as irrelevant. Ryan also plays down allegations of slave labor and the perception that the system is biased against growers as it favors national and private buyers, exporters and chocolate makers and marketers in Europe and the United States. While the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana may not exactly be coddling their cocoa growers, who are some of the countries’ greatest revenue sources, they treat them about as well as they treat their citizens in general, she argues.

Orla Ryan, the author of "Chocolate Nations"
Orla Ryan, the author of "Chocolate Nations." SOPHIE HARES

Ryan suggests that the cocoa business and West African society are just too complex for easy answers. An Irish journalist, she learned the trade from the bottom up during a four-year stint in West Africa reporting on the cocoa market for Reuters.

Take accusations of slavery. Are the field-workers in Ghana and Ivory Coast really slaves or just laborers who farm cocoa because they can’t get better-paying work?

And yes, some of these barely paid laborers are children, but in many cases their impoverished parents are delighted their children have found work,  have a roof over their heads at the farm and may at some point scrape together the fees required to attend school.

Of every 10 children stopped on the Ghana-Ivory Coast border, “at least eight are happy,” an officer patrolling the region told Ryan. “They are happy to be leaving home and … happy to be getting work.”

“In a large family, where food is scarce, it is easy to believe that life will be better for your children elsewhere,” Ryan adds. In fact, many children working on cocoa farms are the offspring of growers, their friends and families or sharecroppers working the land for absentee owners, she explains. “In this kind of hand-to-mouth existence, family labor holds cocoa enterprises together. Without it, smallholders would struggle to harvest the crop.”

Furthermore, while the various fair-trade initiatives do what they can to prevent slave and child labor, they lack the resources to police the small farms. Despite the support of consumer groups and prominent chocolate makers, fair-trade buyers typically pay growers the same prices and sometimes even less than private buyers, she notes.

Even if fair-trade buyers paid a bit more, it would not be enough to make a difference in the lives of most growers, who are trapped in poverty, Ryan says. “Decades of political mismanagement, theft and waste mean that large parts of rural Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are massively underdeveloped. Small holdings, poor education and low yields conspire to keep farmers stuck in a trap of low returns.”

The only talk show of its kind in the world
Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa
Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa

To emphasize her point, she cites figures suggesting that West African growers themselves are turning away from fair trade, more concerned about getting paid up front than a little more later in the marketing cycle. Fair trade’s share of the crop appears to have peaked about a decade ago and began falling off in 2007 and 2008, Ryan says, leaving fair-trade chocolate a niche product that over time may end up not making much difference in growers’ well-being.

If there have been improvements in their quality of life, this is related more to their growing political and marketplace clout, given the persistent high demand for cocoa, Ryan argues. While Ivory Coast has been roiled in recent years by violence and instability, economic and political reforms in Ghana are benefiting growers in a more tangible fashion than fair trade.

“Fair trade has piggybacked on the democratic gains made by Ghana,” she writes. The real change comes “from the thumbprints on ballot papers, the counting of votes, the inauguration of new presidents and the realization that farmers are not just producers. They are also voters.”

Others will argue that Ryan, in her effort to prove a point, protests too much. While fair trade may not be fulfilling the ambitious dreams of its supporters right now, its activities in Ivory Coast and Ghana have undeniably shown the way to growers and governments alike. At the same time, its activities in the United States and Europe have pressured – embarrassed? – chocolate makers into doing more to give growers a fairer shake.

One example is Project Hope and Fairness, founded by Tom Neuhaus, an owner of Sweet Earth Organic Chocolates, a fair-trade artisan chocolate maker and an associate professor of food science and nutrition at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.

His organization does everything from digging wells and helping to rebuild rural villages to donating accurate scales to growers so they can get an honest weight for their crops. The group has set up programs that invite students from abroad to live in West African villages and study the cocoa business.

One of Neuhaus’s cherished goals is to help create small-scale rural facilities that can manufacture candy from locally grown cocoa, whittling away at chocolate’s status as a neocolonial product while turning West Africans into chocolate consumers themselves.

Other fair-trade groups, with support from some major candy makers, are carrying out similar campaigns. So is the Millennium Villages Project, a multinational public-private nonprofit partnership working with the United Nations to help achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals.

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Project Hope and Fairness points out that Americans consume 2.8 billion pounds of chocolate, or nearly half the world’s supply, every year. Most of it comes from small farms in Ivory Coast. Yet 60 percent of the children of Ivorian cocoa farmers receive no education at all.

Surely, with outside help and pressure, they can fare better. Without such support – from fair-trade players as well as the UN, wealthy nations, cocoa buyers and marketers and others – it is less likely they will get what they need.

“Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa,” by Orla Ryan; 978-178032-309-1

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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations. He also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.

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