OPINION: The bitter truth behind chocolate’s sweetness

Ashley Mashian

Jenny Newman, Senior Staff Columnist

I’m a big fan of chocolate in all of its many forms, from hot chocolate to ice cream. But there is a darker side of chocolate, one that most people don’t consider when they’re enjoying this delicious treat.

Ten years ago, a pair of reporters for the Knight-Ridder media chain went into west Africa to explore the origins of America’s chocolate – specifically, the countries of Mali and Ivory Coast, which produce about 67 percent of the world’s cocoa. What they found there in 2001 – and what was confirmed by other reporters later and testified to before Congress – was that much of the cocoa grown there is farmed by child slaves.

That’s right, child slaves.

The world has known this for a decade, but I first made this discovery when reading about a study undertaken by TED –  the popular organization that sponsors talks about philosophy, science and current events, among other things – on a website run by American University (tinyurl.com/BPCHOCOLATE).

I decided that I was going to have to find out more.

Most widely reported is the case of a then-12-year-old from Mali named Aly Diabate. Promised $150 and a bicycle for a year’s worth of labor, he found himself instead enslaved on a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast, where the only compensation was near-daily beatings (tinyurl.com/ALYDBP).

“Since Aly was only about four feet tall, the bags of cocoa beans were taller than him,” write the authors of the original article, “A Taste of Slavery: How your Chocolate May Be Tainted,” published in Knight Ridder papers around the U.S. (tinyurl.com/BPHYCMBT).

“It took two people to put the bag on my head,” Aly is quoted as saying. “And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.”

The article also describes the conditions in which he slept – conditions that should sound familiar to anyone who has listened to a Holocaust survivor.

“He and 18 other slave workers had to stay in their one room that measured 24-by-20 feet,” the article reported. “The boys all slept on a wooden plank.

‘There was but one small hole just big enough to let in some air. Aly and the others had to urinate in a can, because once they went into the room, they were not allowed to leave.”

According to a report by the United Nations Department of Public Information, or UNDPI, such conditions have been pretty much standard on cocoa plantations worked by slaves at least since the privatization of the chocolate industry in 1999. (tinyurl.com/BPUNDPI).

Here in the U.S., chocolate is dominated by two companies: Mars (makers of M&Ms) and Hershey’s, which control two-thirds of the market. Both of these companies buy massive amounts of Ivory Coast cocoa. They aren’t alone. Companies whose products were almost certainly made by child slaves include Kraft, Nestle, See’s, Toblerone and Godiva.

Since 2001, in the aftermath of the Knight-Ridder report, the companies have asserted that they aren’t responsible for the early stages of cocoa growth because they do not own the plantations.

However, with the Senate looking like it was going to affirm a vote passed by the House in favor of more regulation over cocoa, the chocolate industry committed to a four-year plan to eliminate chocolate slavery (tinyurl.com/BPSLAVERY).

Part of the plan called for instituting voluntary industry-wide standards on buying cocoa by the end of 2005. It’s 2011, and this plan has only barely begun to take shape.  In fact, I could find almost nothing published on this topic at all after 2005.

But in 2009, Mars restated its commitment to the ethical production of chocolate (tinyurl.com/BPMANDM) and began working with the Rainforest Alliance.  Today, some Mars candy carries a rather ironic designation, a green seal that means it is “RA certified,”  which means that at least 30 percent of the cocoa in the bar was not grown by child slaves.  Mars says it hopes to have all its products RA-certified by 2020.

This 30 percent standard is not ideal, however. A more meaningful standard is offered by the Fair Trade Organization, which requires 100 percent ethically grown cocoa for the designation “Fairtrade” on packages.

For its part, Hershey’s voted in 2006 to keep the names of its cocoa suppliers entirely secret (tinyurl.com/BPHERSHEY). And that seemed to be the policy when I called the company last week.

“We do not disclose that, because we are never aware of which batch comes from where,” said a Hershey’s employee named Maggie, who I contacted through the customer inquiry line at Hershey’s headquarters.

Maggie wouldn’t give her own last name, either, saying that it is the policy of Hershey’s employees not to give last names in interviews for the press.

“It is common knowledge that our chocolate comes from the Ivory Coast, South America, and other places,” Maggie said. “We don’t discriminate where our chocolate comes from.”

Which almost makes Mars’ 30 percent slave-free standard look pretty good.

Back in Ivory Coast, this year the government has been in turmoil. The incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to cede power to Alassane Ouattara, the internationally recognized winner of the country’s last election on Nov. 23.  (tinyurl.com/BPICLATEST).

Ouattara is actively against slave-produced cocoa, but so far, Ghagbo is still in power. Ghana has closed its borders to Ivory Coast for fear of smugglers bringing slave-produced chocolate there. The situation has driven up the price of cocoa by 16 percent.

Knowing all this, it seems incredible that people could feel comfortable enjoying an after-dinner chocolate, or indulging in that delicious piece of chocolate cake.

We shouldn’t be economically supporting companies that make child slavery in Ivory Coast profitable – especially since there are plenty of companies that use cocoa not grown by abused child slaves (see related article, this page).

Some might argue that this issue is remote, and that there are problems closer to home that we as students should concern ourselves with.  I know plenty of people who don’t care where their chocolate comes from.

But as a Jewish school that prides itself on morality and on social awareness – as Shalhevet — doesn’t it seem like we could make the switch to selling, and buying, only slave-free chocolate quite easily?  This is such a small, easy change we can make to our lifestyles, with minimal sacrifice.

I love chocolate. But I’m not willing to accept the idea that I’m helping companies like Hershey’s get rich by exploiting the labor of children.

We can make a difference; let’s do it.