Beans of Bondage

That cocoa in your chocolate is the product of slave labour


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heart-shaped chocolates will signify love for millions next week, but one advocacy group has a Valentine’s message for the chocolate industry that isn’t so sweet: “End child slavery.”The cocoa harvest produces the 400 beans needed for each pound of chocolate we buy, but for thousands of African boys it means the incalculable theft of freedom and childhood. That’s why fair traders want major chocolate producers to change the way they buy ingredients.

According to testimonies gathered by researchers, parents from impoverished West African regions in Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo sell their children for as little as $35 U.S., believing that slave traffickers will pay them wages that can be sent home. But instead of money, the daily shifts of 12-plus hours earn the boys malnourishment, nighttime lockups and beatings by farm owners and supervisors.

Why is colonial-era bondage tainting love’s fondest delectation? Fair trade experts point out that since 1996 the price of raw cocoa has fallen 24 per cent. West African governments have exacerbated the situation by abolishing commodity boards, leaving small farmers to deal with the fluctuations of free global markets on their own.

“Low world prices are a detriment to small farmers, and slave labour cuts costs,” says Caroline Whitby, managing director of TransFair Canada, whose logo promises its producers distribute proceeds equitably and use environmental techniques.

Big companies do not want the stain of slave chocolate on their name, but sometimes there is no way of determining the source. Beans come from brokers who buy from all kinds of farmers and send the beans to processing plants mixed together, so slave cocoa is indistinguishable from the rest. If sophisticated multinationals can’t tell a bondage bean from a clean one, neither can consumers.

While children fear the punishing hand of their masters, the global chocolate industry worries about invigorated regulation and the kind of activist campaigns that have hounded shoes and clothing. So the industry has voluntarily tried to address the problem before a solution is imposed on it.

“The consuming public has a very important relationship with our industry, and the industry knows it,” says John Rowsome, president of the Confectionery Manufacturers Association of Canada (CMAC).

In November 2001, representatives of the global cocoa and chocolate industry signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, setting a four-year timetable to comply with the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182 and eradicate “the worst forms of child labour.” Acting for its 90-plus confectionery members, CMAC signed on behalf of the Canadian industry.

To determine the extent of forced labour on cocoa farms in West Africa, the world’s chocolate makers have initiated a large-scale survey. The industry will also establish an enforcement program, a system of monitoring and a public reporting process, Rowsome adds. “Its aggressive, but we’re going to meet it,” he says. “We want to be able to back up what we say we are doing.’

But fair traders, who for more than a decade have worked to help sugar, tea, coffee and cocoa farmers in developing nations, believe there is a better model than this kind of monitoring: companies must contract directly with farms and plantations and avoid the brokerage chain altogether.

Currently, two Canadian cooperatives, LaSiembra of Ottawa and Just Us! of Nova Scotia, produce cocoa powder and chocolate bars with fair-trade-certified cocoa and sugar. They guarantee farmers a price of 80 cents per pound — twice the global rate of 40 cents — and pass the cost on to consumers. Debbie Moore of Just Us! Coffee Roasters Co-op says her customers pay a 30 per cent premium for her cocoa (or $5.95 to $6.50 for a 224-gram package).

Despite its high-end niche, fair trade is flirting with the mainstream. La Siembra cocoa powder has penetrated three of Canada’s largest grocery chains, Overwaitea, Safeway and Sobeys, and in March 2002 it will launch its Cocoa Camino brand with two 100-gram chocolate bars.

Despite his position as an owner-member of La Siembra, Kevin Thomson hopes the multinationals take fair trade seriously. “We want to encourage them to change their trading habits. If they knock us out of the market, it has been time well spent,” he says. Paul Pellizzari is the author of Conscious Consumption: Corporate Social Responsibility And Canada’s Grocery Giants, to be published by EthicScan Canada.

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