Sunday, February 12, 2012

Chocolate Dreams

noukorama,Flickr Creative Commons
I love chocolate. Let me repeat – I LOVE chocolate. In all forms: candy bars, cocoa, cake, frosting.

Over the past fifty years I have bought a LOT of chocolate. I’m fairly sure my first personal purchase was a chocolate cupcake, at the bakery at Four Corners, our neighborhood shopping mecca. Every postcard I sent home from camp was smeared in chocolate – most likely the chocolate coating from the ice cream bars I bought every afternoon in the little camp canteen. My first gift from a boy was a whole box of Reeses miniature peanut butter cups –bought in that same camp store.

In all my purchases of chocolate – bagfuls to throw at youth retreats, bowlfuls to pass at planning seminars or youth group leaders’ meetings – I missed the memo about cocoa sourcing. I didn’t realize – until just last week – that most of our US chocolate is sourced from West African plantations where child labor is the norm, and child slavery is common.

I’m still a little stunned, I confess. I’ve been aware of human trafficking. I’ve been a strong supporter of Fair Trade. I’ve been buying my coffee from farmer’s cooperatives for years – and somehow missed the chocolate story.

In 2001, news reports in the US and UK called attention to child slavery on cocoa farms in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire . Downward pressure on cocoa prices had made it impossible for cocoa farmers to pay their employees; as a result, desperate farmers were using children to harvest crops. Children as young as six were being kidnapped, or sold, or lured into service with the unfulfilled promise that they would be given money at the end of their time of service.

Dark Side of Chocolate 2010
Under pressure from consumers, the major chocolate manufacturers agreed to the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a non-binding document that acknowledged the problem and outlined a plan to address it. The companies agreed that by 2002 they would create enforceable international standards and an independent monitoring system, and would provide funds for a foundation to research and share best practices. They also agreed that by 2005 there would be industry-wide standards of certification ensuring an end to child slavery and abuse of child labor.

A decade later, the protocol deadlines have passed, the cocoa producing regions of the world are even poorer than before, and child slavery has expanded. Last spring, ten years after the signing of the protocol, a study by Tulane University found that more than 1.8 million children in West Africa are involved in cultivating and harvesting cocoa. Estimates are that at a significant percentage of those are actual slaves – numbers range from 100 to 200 thousand. Few attend school. Most are involved in high risk activities, applying dangerous pesticides, carrying heavy loads that leave scarred backs, beaten with bicycle chains or coca branches when they fall behind..

The two largest US firms involved in slave-trade chocolate: Mars and Hersheys.

You know Mars: makers of M&M's, Snickers, Dove, Milky Way, Kudos, and a wide range of other foods and candies. Mars is still owned by the Mars family --  chairman John Franklyn Mars, VP Jacqueline Badger Mars, and former CEO Forrest Mars Jr. Together the Mars siblings are worth forty billion dollars, making their family one of the wealthiest in the world. How much of that wealth was at the expense of children working twelve or more hours a day, with no shoes, no school, little food, no pay?

CNN Chocolate Child Slaves 2010
While Mars has made only small moves toward monitoring cocoa sources for the chocolate they sell in the European Union (but not in the US), the Hershey company has done even less. Hershey is the largest supplier of chocolate in the US - Resse’s. Kisses. Nutrageous. 5th Avenue. Almond Joy. Caramello. Heath. Kit Kat. Mounds. Mr. Goodbar. Rolo. Symphony. Take5. York. Whatchamacallit. The list goes on and on. 

According to a 2011 report by the International Labor Rights Forum, Green America and Global Exchange, “Hershey remains a laggard in its industry on the important issue of child labor. Consumers, businesses, and legislators are increasingly embracing greater transparency and the reduction of labor abuses in supply chains. The most iconic chocolate company in the US … is the lone holdout.” 

Fortunately for chocolate lovers everywhere, there are alternatives, and from now on, I’ll be seeking them out. Equal Exchange has been working with small farmer cooperatives since 1986, and has moved increasingly into cocoa and chocolate production in the past ten years. Equal Exchange is itself worker owned and run, and encourages democratic decision making and shared best practices at every level of their supply chain.

Divine Chocolate is another bright spot in the world of chocolate. The company partners with Kuapa Kokoo, a cooperative of cocoa farmers from Ghana. All cocoa comes from the cooperative, ensuring the farmers fair prices, protection from price volatility, and a say in how the cocoa is produced and marketed.

There are other ethical chocolate companies working hard to treat farmers well and ensure fair wages and education for child workers while providing delicious chocolate. Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and any fair trade or natural food store will offer a selection.

But think for a minute: if you had forty billion dollars (the collective wealth of the Mars siblings), what would it take to change the lives of the children in your supply chain? In a country where a living wage is less than $2 a day, and annual salary is less than $700, it would take $70,000,000 to pay 100,000 children a generous wage. Add some schooling, throw in some shoes, and you won’t even notice it’s missing.  

Green America Chocolate Scorecard
All the big chocolate companies have made gestures toward addressing this problem. International watchdog groups say not nearly enough. The agreement was to have slave trade in chocolate solved years ago. The most recent Tulane report, overseen by the State Department, was that less than 3% of cocoa farmers in West Africa had any awareness at all of a move to address child labor.

Sometimes it feels like it takes too much work to live as an ethical consumer in a profit-mad world. Why should I have to research my chocolate before I eat it? Why should I need to debate pros and cons before I order a cup of hot cocoa? Does it matter where Wegman’s gets the cocoa in their chocolate cakes? What about the chocolate in brownie mix? Just thinking about it exhausts me.

But then I stop to think of the exhaustion of small children, lugging huge bags of cocoa pods on their backs. Of young boys, scaling trees with machetes, swinging tired arms, too often missing and hitting legs instead. Of hungry pre-teen girls, chopping away, day after day, at mountains of cocoa pods.

On the Slave Free Chocolate site, I came across this:
In Conclusion: Circumspectus Orbit. Look around you. If you accept that which you are aware is intrinsically wrong and have influence over, have you not contributed to its existence? You are what you do. . . Willful blindness will not buy divine absolution. That which is ignored will not cease to exist.  Closing one’s eyes serves only to feed the rabid, gaping maw of indifferent, self-serving greed, the continued existence of harsh injustice and the exponential growth of dehumanizing inequality; and in the process . . . makes us responsible accomplices.
That which is ignored will not cease to exist.
So, while I dream of a day when large corporations do the right thing, because they can, because people count more than profit, I’ll act in full knowledge that I do have influence, no matter how small, and I’ll use it on behalf of those children who have none.
I’ll sign the online petitions and campaigns.

I’ll look for Fair Trade chocolate (and cocoa, and brownie mix, and ice cream).

I'll try some creative ideas - like a Valentine's Day greeting on manufacturers' facebook pages,  reminding them that I can't eat their chocolate until they address their cocoa sourcing and pay cocoa farmers a fairer price.

And I’ll pray – for conviction where needed, for courage where needed, for freedom for the oppressed,  justice for the poor, fair prices for the farmer, slave-free delicious chocolate for us all. 

As always, comments, ideas, suggestions are welcome. Click on the _comments line below for the comment box to appear.