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Who Really Bears The Cost Of Our Chocolate Addiction?

Hundreds of thousands of children are still suffering under exploitative conditions and our environment is suffering too.

28/04/2017 11:24 SAST | Updated 05/05/2017 16:14 SAST

Chocolate is the world's most common and socially acceptable addictive confectionary. It has a complex and problematic value chain that few of us want to engage with or talk about, because for many of us, a life without chocolate is unimaginable.

Cocoa travels along a global supply chain spanning countries and continents, involving various groups including farmers, buyers, shipping organisations, processors, chocolatiers, and distributers. Unprocessed cocoa is transported to manufacturers to be processed into chocolate products for commercial consumption in factories where workers frantically sort beans, check temperature settings, and wrap bars.

For quite some time, it has been well-known that mass production of cocoa, the primary ingredient in chocolate, comes at cost: in child slave-labour and for the environment. Seventy-three percent of the world's cultivated cocoa comes from West African countries Côte d'Ivoire , Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon. Other major producing countries of the Global South are Indonesia, Malaysia, Papaua New Guinea, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia. Côte d'Ivoire is the world's leading cocoa producer, supplying more than 40% of the cocoa consumed worldwide.

Reports of slave labour on cocoa farms first surfaced in 1998, when a Côte d'Ivoire local newspaper reported the widespread practice of human trafficking — importing and indenturing Malian boys to work on cocoa plantations. In 2001, the United States Department of State reported an initial estimate of 15,000 Malian children working on cocoa and coffee plantations in Côte d'Ivoire. According to the 2001 report many of the child workers were under 12 years of age. In the same year, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimated that there were 378,000 working children in Côte d'Ivoire alone. Currently, up to 2 million children are working on cocoa plantations in West Africa, of which more than 500,000 are involved in hazardous child labour which can seriously harm their physical and mental health.

Samsul Said / Reuters

Media coverage and the threat of regulatory action pushed the cocoa industry to collaborate with other stakeholders to eliminate the worst forms of child labour from cocoa production. In 2001 many of the world's largest chocolate producers signed an international voluntary agreement, called the Harkin-Engel Protocol, in response to the reports of human rights violations. Sixteen years later, hundreds of thousands of children are still suffering under exploitative conditions on cocoa plantations, despite widely accepted international labour standards, such as those laid out by the the International Labour Organisation, and United Nations conventions which prohibit any form of work by children younger than 12.

The international outcry has led to a number of of major chocolate manufactures promising to phase in Fairtrade practice while others declare themselves as 100% certified Fairtrade. Fairtrade is a global movement and the world's leading ethical certification of product supply chains committed to protecting human rights and the environment.

However, the reality is that Fairtrade cocoa production does not reap the same profit margins as non-Fairtrade cocoa. This makes it less appealing to manufacturers. According to Fairtrade's website, Marks & Spencer and Green & Black's are listed as Fairtrade Manufacters in South Africa.

Marks & Spencer and Green & Blacks are not accessible to the average South African as their products are expensive and are usually sold at elite niche stores or markets. Cadbury, which once was listed as a Fairtrade manufacturer, terminated its contract with Fairtrade in November 2016 after a mere seven years. Cadbury pulled out of its Fairtrade agreement in favour of its own Cocoa Life scheme, after signing with Fairtrade in 2009 — which was lauded as a major moment in the company's almost 200-year history. Dairy Milk and other Cadbury products are no longer recognised as Fairtrade chocolate, but the brand continues to carry the Fairtrade logo as part of a partnership with the foundation which monitors its work.

Thierry Gouegnon / Reuters
People work with cocoa beans in Enchi June 17, 2014. Picture taken June 17, 2014. To match Insight GHANA-IVORYCOAST/COCOA REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon (GHANA - Tags: BUSINESS AGRICULTURE FOOD)

Cocoa cultivation is dependent on intensive manual labour because cocoa pods do not ripen at the same time, which makes continuous monitoring and intensive care necessary. Cultivation of cocoa is a delicate process as crops are susceptible to various conditions including weather patterns, diseases, and insects. When cocoa pods are ripe and cut from the trees by hand, the beans undergo a process of fermentation, drying, cleaning and packaging, Currently, cocoa production ensures the livelihood of about 14 million workers and their families, and is the main source of income for 5.5 million people in the Global South.

Unlike large-scale agricultural businesses, more than 90 % of cocoa is grown and harvested on small family-run farms of two to five hectares or less while just five percent comes from plantations of 40 hectares or more.

The world market price for cocoa has decreased by more than half in the last 30 years, for a variety in reasons including non-transparent trade chains, taxes, differences in quality. The reality that most cocoa farms are poorly organised and farmers lack insight into the development of world market prices. More than two thirds of the market share of cocoa is held by only five companies: Mars (USA), Mondelez (USA), Nestlé (Switzerland), Ferrero (Italy) and Hershey's (USA). While these companies are competing for higher market share and higher profits, millions of cocoa farmers bear the costs by receiving a smaller and smaller portion of revenues. The average cocoa farmers and their family barely manage to get by on less than $1.25 (about R17,00) day. To put that in perspective, that's about the same amount of money a South African pays for a premium bar chocolate, and about half of that for a cheaper chocolate brand.


The exploitation of cocoa farmers also has severe ecological consequences. Because the farmers are underpaid, they do not have the money to invest in sustainable, ecological and diversified farming and plant protection. The farmers lack training and access to expert advice on sustainable agriculture to improve productivity and increase the quality of their cocoa beans. Farmers often are forced to use additional farmland to meet the demand to cultivate more cocoa, often at the expense of rain forests which are cleared. This is part of a global challenge to increase agricultural productivity on existing areas of farmland without encroaching further into the world's vital remaining forests.

Several human rights organisations and environment groups have backed campaigns such as Make Chocolate Fair, an international campaign coordinated by four civil society organisations in Austria, Estonia (Mondo), Czech Republic and Germany (INKOTA). They want to see the end of slavery, adequate income cocoa farmers and their employees, decent working conditions, compliant with international human rights, and for chocolate companies to make a contribution to preserve ecosystems and climate protection and to use an independent certification system.

So next time you're munching on a delicious chocolate, consider sparing a thought for those who were involved in its production.

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