Monday, February 25, 2008

The High Price of Chocolate

child cocoa worker, Ivory Coast

Chocolate- its one of nature's perfect foods. It delights our senses. Some say it has "curative" properties. Even our bodies crave it once we've tasted it. And this Valentine's day the chocolate industry is expected to net over $400 million in sales for the sweet substance. Yet there's a bitter side to the chocolate trade, one that involves child labor, poverty and the exploitation that seems to be par the course in our new global economy.

West Africa supplies some 70% of the world's cocoa beans. Côte d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast) alone accounts for 40%. And although the cocoa industry netted billions in profit just this past year (one company, Cargill, reported $2.7 billion alone), the living conditions for the farmers who work cocoa on plantations or small house hold plots are dismal.

As Christian Parenti writes: "Working and living conditions are brutal. Most villages lack electricity, running water, health clinics or schools. And to make ends meet, underage cocoa workers...spend their days wielding machetes, handling pesticides and carrying heavy loads."

Some have called what is going on in the Ivory Coast forced child labor. Others have equated it to slavery. How do big cocoa companies get away with this? Well for one, as Parenti writes, they can always claim they aren't directly involved:

"The big cocoa exporters - Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM, Fortune 500), Barry Callebaut and Saf-Cacao - do not own plantations and do not directly employ child workers. Instead, they buy beans from Ivorian middlemen called pisteurs and treton. These middlemen own warehouses and fleets of flatbed trucks that travel deep into the jungle to buy cocoa from the small independent farmers who grow most of the crop. But labor and human rights activists charge that Big Chocolate has an obligation to improve working conditions on the farms where so many children toil. They argue that the exporters and manufacturers bear ultimate responsibility for conditions on the farms because they exert considerable control over world cocoa markets, essentially setting what is called the farm gate price."

Secondly, they can claim that they have fixed the problem and are working on it. This isn't a new issue after all. Some seven years back, after the plight of West African cocoa farmers was made more widely known, public outcry resulted in the threat of regulation of the industry. U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced legislation that would have demanded chocolate be labeled, similar to the Kimberly process for conflict diamonds. But, as Parenti writes, "The industry fought back, and a compromise was reached establishing a voluntary protocol by which chocolate companies would wean themselves from child labor, then certify that they had done so."

By getting out in front of the issue the industry managed to scrap the labeling process. Instead there was a promise of "public reporting by African governments, third-party verification and poverty remediation by 2005." Much like the controversial Kimberly process, by 2005 it seems not much was done. Pleading for time, the cocoa industry managed to get the protocol extended for three more years until July 2008. "To turn up the heat," Parenti says,"the U.S. Department of Labor contracted with Tulane University to monitor progress." And it is from this Tulane report that we today realize, near nothing has really changed.

Parenti in his article writes:

"Researchers found that while industry and governments in West Africa have made initial steps, such as establishing task forces on child labor, conditions on the ground remain bad: Children still work in cocoa production, regularly miss school, perform dangerous tasks and suffer injury and sickness. The report criticized the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana for lack of transparency. And it said the industry's certification process "contains no standards."

What's worse, in 2002 the once "stable" Ivory Coast tumbled into chaos after electoral politics turned into conflict and warfare between factions in a divided country. Like diamonds in Sierra Leone and rich minerals in the Democratic Republic of Congo, cocoa became the means for those with weapons to accrue power, wealth and more arms. According to the London based Global Witness in 2007, government and rebel leaders in Ivory Coast, "both siphoned off millions...from the cocoa industry to finance the 2002-03 civil war." Thus cocoa growing, already an exploitative enterprise, gave way to what some called "Blood Chocolate."

Today that war is over, with both sides accepting a disquieting peace, backed up by the presence of UN troops and former coloniser France. The war however has become a convenient excuse for the chocolate industry, who say the conflict "hampered their efforts to eradicate child labor." In the meantime, business goes on as usual, while the industry claims to either be taking steps (often ineffectual and farcial) or unable to do anything.

So what is the answer to all this? Well there has long been a movement "fair-trade" chocolate, where lovers of the sweet substance can refuse to buy from producers and exporters involved in exploitation and child labor. But the issue extends further than this. Groups like Equal Exchange, who specialize in importing/buying "fair-trade" chocolates, tend to do so from democratically run co-ops, where farmers can grow and sell their products in community agri-groups. However both the cocoa industry, and the Ivory Coast government who are bolstered by the multi-billion dollar trade, engage in acts of intimidation and harrassment to discourage such ventures. Cocoa industry bigs like Cargill even set up exploitative loan-schemes similar to sharecropping, where poor farmers must borrow against the beans they produce--often finding themselves stifled in a cycle of debt they can never manage to break out of.

At the moment, fair-trade chocolate in Ivory Coast has made little headway. It accounts for about 1% of exports. As Parenti writes, "A more effective way to combat child labor would be for the government of Ivory Coast to invest some of the revenue it gets from high taxes on cocoa exporters in education and social services to help poor farmers."

When asked what would improve things, the farmers also know the answer--"better prices." Better prices for cocoa, which we consume so cheaply, would mean more money for them. A little more money paid on our end would would mean less of a dependence by farmers on cocoa corporations like Cargill and the ability to send children back to schools instead of the cocoa farms. More money would mean those same farmers have a greater ability to press their own government to involve itself in fair trade.

In the meantime, back here, on the other side of the trade, the Tulane report is due to come up in Congress. The extension for the big companies and the Ivory Coast to implement policies more beneficial to their farmers and less apt to employ children is up for renewal. Contacting the sponsors of that legislation, Rep. Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and other concerned bodies, Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and voicing our concerns seems a fitting bit of political action in this campaign season.

*Much of this post taken from Christian Parenti's article Chocolate's Bittersweet Economy.

Listen to Parenti debate the Cocoa Industry on Democracy Now!


Torrance Stephens bka All-Mi-T said...

yea, i have seen it when i livd in west africa. nice blog do chk me out one day and if u like what u read add me to your blog roll and stop by more

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