Death by chocolate

Following accounts of child labour, Carol Off headed straight to the heart of the world’s cocoa production, Côte d’Ivoire. The West African country supplies nearly half of the world’s cocoa beans, which are the principal ingredient in chocolate.

In the past few years, civil war and corruption have weighed heavily on farmers in the region already at the bottom end of a multi-billion dollar business. It left them forced to take drastic measures – including smuggling boys in from surrounding countries and keeping them as indentured servants.

Off’s book Bitter Chocolate is an investigative account of the dark side of this multi-billion dollar industry. Removing the innocent mask from the world’s favourite sweet, the investigative journalist and host of CBC radio’s As It Happens reveals a cycle of exploitation which originated in Central America with the Mayan and Aztec rulers and continues through to the multinational corporations of today.

“One thing is consistent,” the book reads, “then and now, chocolate is a luxury consumed by the privileged at the cost of those much less so. For thousands of years, the chocolate cravings of an elite have been satisfied by the hard labour of an underclass.”

I caught up with Off by phone…

Ten years ago I was a participant in a Canada World Youth exchange in Burkina Faso, in West Africa. I stayed with a family with boys who occasionally mentioned they might head off to Côte d’Ivoire for work. I had no idea they could eventually be heading into something like what you describe in the book…
I don’t think it was initially as drastic as it is. I think maybe ten years ago – maybe starting then because of the World Bank and IMF Structural Adjustment Programs, which forced the ideology that you tear down all the marketing boards, and you tear down all the programs, and people fend for themselves, and price finds its own place, and everyone gets rich. They collected less and less for the cocoa beans they grew.

And what happened is these cocoa farmers just collapsed into penury, because there was no way to defend themselves. So, initially, the labour was pretty mutually helpful. The farmers needed the labour and the labour needed the work. So then suddenly they couldn’t afford to pay for the labour. That’s when the farmers in Ivory Coast started to use their own children and other peoples’ children from outside the country who were desperate for work.

How do they get the kids to stay?
The kids, first of all, think they’re going to be paid eventually. They put up with a lot because they think they’re going to be paid. They’re going through all this shit and they have a moment when they try to get paid and they find out they’re not going to be paid. Then they realize that they’re hopeless, because the whole point of coming to the farms was to make money. When we’re kids and we do work and are treated badly we grin and bear it because we know we’ll get paid. The conditions are much worse there, but it’s the same idea. And then they have nowhere to go, because they were brought there. If you go to these farms and these farmlands, it’s just jungle. They’re not used to the geographic environment, because they come from a barren, prairie-like place. They get into the hills of Ivory Coast and it’s thick and dense jungle and it’s completely foreign to them. They don’t know how to get out and they have no place to go.

When did you first know you had to write this book?
I was going to do a documentary about it, about the children and how they were being treated.

I knew I had to do a book because I wanted to help explain the layers of how this can happen. When you take something like chocolate, which is so innocent and so childlike and central to so many great occasions in our lives, and you show that our pleasure – which is cheap – creates this chaos… Our needs cause all of this suffering. I wanted to show the layer that this suffering is historic. Chocolate has been a luxury that’s been enjoyed by elites at the cost of an underclass since it was first discovered. It shows us, the consumers of the chocolate today, as part of a continuity. We’re no different from Montezuma. We’re no different from Louis XIV. We’re no different from any other group that exploited others to enjoy ourselves. The fact that we think things are now democratic, that the industrial revolution has brought us all to the same place, that we’re all equal, it ignores the reality that a small part of the world is enjoying a democracy of pleasure and goods at the cost of others who have nothing and will have nothing.

I wanted to show the history of chocolate going from the Mayans and the Aztecs up through the issues that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund introduced to it, and show the trend of slavery and exploitative labour which runs through that whole history. There was only one way to do that and that was a book. I thought I could really show an epic sweep of something this thing most people think of as quite innocent.

And what about the disconnect? How do you feel that people don’t know about this?
I think that people would like to do the right thing, but we want to have cheap goods. We don’t acknowledge, and for the most part don’t want to acknowledge that the price of our cheap goods is paid by somebody else, somewhere else. And that’s whether it’s gasoline you’re putting in your car or chocolate. We live in a fool’s paradise of pleasure and indulgence that someone else, someplace else, pays for.

People know about all the other horrible things that we enjoy that someone else pays for, but I thought chocolate was so strikingly innocent, and so childish, that it was really startling to show people how much we enjoy of life at someone’s expense. Because these are children who are cultivating the beans for us! They are providing the beans to make the chocolate for the children who enjoy it.

I thought nothing – nothing – could be more simple. It’s a perfect example of how unequal and completely unjust things can be.

What has been the public reaction to the book?
It’s been overwhelmingly “Oh my god, what can we do?” Which actually was encouraging for me, because my final moments are completely pessimistic.

That was going to be my next question. Your final sentence in the book was “For as far as anyone can see into the future, there is little likelihood that this ancient and enduring injustice will be corrected.” How did it feel to write that sentence?
I felt absolute despair.

Even as I was telling people I was writing this book they would say, “Oh no, another thing we have to worry about,” or, “Oh great, now I can’t eat chocolate any more.” All kinds of cynical messages, even among people I thought would care. I thought if that’s the reaction to my writing this book, I don’t give up much hope for change.

What also gave me despair was to realize people can’t fight this on a consumer level. I don’t think fair trade products are a solution.

A lot of people would be surprised that you’d say that.
Yeah, I think so. And I don’t want to disparage people who are really trying to do something like that, but fair trade is such a small part of the product.

It also removes the consumers who are conscientious and who put pressure on things, who have something to say, from the game.

They say, “All right, I can’t deal with the whole bloody mess, so I’m going to eat this fair trade stuff and feel okay, so I can get through my day.”

Fair trade removes all the people who could put up a really good fight, and it leaves the people who don’t care making the decisions.

So I concluded that my despair came from realizing there was no consumer solution to the issue of child labour and chocolate. We don’t have much power as consumers. We have far more power as citizens. It’s far more important to insist that we cannot have products coming into the country that have exploitative labour as an ingredient.

The giant corporations are not going to suddenly say, “Well, fine, we’re not going to make chocolate any more if you do that.” They’ll be forced into fixing things. That’s where the pressure comes from.

That’s what gave me a lot of hope. People who are contacting me and who are mobilizing politically.

How are they mobilizing?
They’re pressuring government. I’ve heard from a lot of people in Ottawa, NDP people, I’ve read some blogs where people were saying, “We have to make this one of our issues.” That’s in Canada.

In the United States there’s this fantastic group, the International Labour Rights Fund, who are mounting a challenge against the chocolate companies in court. I think challenging corporations in court is really useful.

But that’s the kind of aggressive political action you have to take. Use the courts, use the political system, use committees.

I think we’ll see, now that the Democrats have Congress again that we’re going to start seeing some mobilization again on the cocoa trade. And you sort of feel, “yeah, maybe the world’s waking up.”

Is there a particular image that sticks with you after finishing your book?
Yeah, the kids in Côte d’Ivoire on the cocoa farm, and hearing them say they said they didn’t know what the cocoa beans were used for. And these were the third generation of kids up there, you know? Plucking those beans. They didn’t know what we did with them. Their parents and their grandparents didn’t even know what we did with the beans. They send the beans here, and they don’t know what we do with them.

And this is the world’s chocolate.

At that moment I wasn’t thinking, “Those poor children, they need some chocolate.” I was thinking, “Those children need some shoes. They need something to eat. They need inoculation against diseases. They need a place to go to school.”

Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet is published by Random House.


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