Cocoa: A Bittersweet Legacy of Colonialism

Hershey’s, Kit Kats, Twix, M&Ms. This might look like a shopping list for Halloween candy, but they are some of the biggest names in the chocolate industry that most of us know and love. As consumers chocolate is a sweet treat, but the farmers tell a much different story.

This is a piece I wrote for my Environmental Justice and Food Justice class, I hope you learn something, I found the episode eye opening.

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Not many of us know where our chocolate comes from, maybe Belgium and Switzerland come to mind, but ⅔ of the world’s chocolate is grown in Africa with 40% coming from Côte d’Ivoire. The episode “Bitter Chocolate” from the series Rotten on Netflix dives deep and exposes that the main ingredients in our chocolate are slavery and deforestation.
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The trade is rooted in racism and colonialism, treating people and the planet as expendable. Unfortunately in our society, being at the beginning of the supply chain also means being at the bottom. Farmers make less than a dollar a day, yet are part of a $100 billion industry. If something feels wrong about that, you’re right.

The price of cocoa and the farmers’ living wage is actually based on the London market. This power imbalance between African and European countries dates back to colonial times and exemplifies its lasting effects.

In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, physiological needs such as food, water, and shelter are at the bottom of the pyramid because they are basic human rights that are wrongly treated as a privilege. Clearly well being and self actualization were not factored into this “living” wage at the board meeting. When did “living” mean barely surviving?

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The 2000 documentary, Slavery: A Global Investigation, exposed how prominent child trafficking was in the cocoa industry. People around the world became outraged and demanded action, but the chocolate lobby is powerful and the news cycle moves so quickly that no real change occurred. Even if companies have laws prohibiting child labor, the governments in these countries don’t have the resources to enforce them. A 2019 Washington Post article revealed that companies that had pledged to end child trafficking broke that promise and the issue is still all too real.

The poverty is so overwhelming and pressure to produce cocoa so great that farmers grow cocoa on what is supposed to be protected national forest land since the wait time is cut in half. However, this leaves behind a skeleton forest, small trees are cut and big ones burned. This is not the farmers’ fault or failure. The choice between protecting your family and protecting a forest is really not a choice at all.

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This had me thinking about our class discussion on land and the historical, familial, and cultural value it holds that is often completely overshadowed by its profitability. If protected land is destroyed then no wonder the standard for taking care of communal land is so low. The system is so corrupt that farmers feel the only way out of poverty is to produce more cocoa, when in reality this just tightens the cocoa industry’s hold on them.

It is easy to feel disconnected from our food and not see how climate change affects us as individuals, but the truth is that we are all inextricably connected. The spatial and temporal aspects of climate change explain how we are linked to someone on the other side of the world since we eat a food they produce and breathe the air that deforestation pollutes, which will have lasting effects that people not born yet will feel.

There are brands that use ethically sourced chocolate, but they are more expensive and usually not carried in affordable grocery stores that a majority of the population frequents. When a brand like Endangered Species that is ethically sourced and donates 10% of profits to wildlife foundations is $3.29 and a Hershey bar is $0.97 at Target, it is no wonder people see environmentalism as a white elitist issue.

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It is a privilege to be able to spend almost $4 on a chocolate bar, but the real meaningful change is being created by grassroots efforts. The ironic thing about environmentalism being viewed as a privilege is that those who contribute the least are affected the most and therefore end up bearing the burden of responsibility to fix problems they didn’t create. However, minority communities around the world are innovating ways to break out of the cycle of pollution and waste. One entrepreneur in Africa started WeFly Agri, which uses drones to monitor the cocoa farms so that farmers don’t need to walk for miles.
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The demand to get things cheap and quick is so profound in our consumer culture that companies need to cut costs somewhere and that price is paid by the farmers. The same farmers whose entire daily income might just buy them one Hershey bar if they’re lucky. I believe that the majority of the responsibility is on the wealthy and powerful traders and owners in the industry who call the shots as they have the greatest ability to make a difference, but I do realize that this is a two way street.

It is easier in the short term to feel powerless and blame “the system,” but in the long run that mentality is detrimental. We have to realize that we can in fact be the change we wish to see in the world. We need to expect more from companies and push them to expect more from themselves. If enough people boycott a company, they will be forced to change their practices by the threat of bankruptcy. It would be great if companies simply did the right thing but I believe most of us aren’t naive enough to believe that will be the outcome. We live in an unapologetically capitalist society, let’s take advantage of it.