As the demand for chocolate has exploded in Western society, the price for cacao beans has plummeted in Western Africa where 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is harvested.
To keep their prices competitive, cocoa farmers use children that they do not pay and only feed sparingly. These children are uneducated and often kidnapped or sold to the farmers by relatives who have no idea they are condemning the child to harsh and often brutal conditions. Most children are between the ages of 12 years old and 16 years old, but some are as young as 7 years old when they start. They rarely have access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms; the vast majority of cacao harvesters have never tasted chocolate.
Aly Diabate, a former cacao slave, recalls that he worked from sunrise to sunset without rest. “It took two people to put the bag [of cacao beans] on my head. And when you didn’t hurry, you were beaten.” Drissa, another former cacao slave was asked what he would tell the people who eat chocolate made from the cacao he’s harvested, and he replied, “When people eat chocolate they are eating my flesh.”
The process of harvesting cacao beans is a perilous one; since it is grown in regions with high insect populations, the cacao pods are sprayed with chemicals that can be harmful to their handlers. The process of clearing for planting and the opening of the cacao pods are both accomplished with machetes, so deep cuts are an expected work hazard.
There are 600,000 cacao farms in the Ivory Coast alone; the business accounts for a third of the nation’s entire economy. To keep costs low, farm owners feed their workers the cheapest foods available, often a corn paste and bananas. UNICEF estimates that half a million children work on the cacao farms of the Ivory Coast.
The chocolate industry is worth an estimated $110 billion per year, $13 billion of which is within the United States. The farms of West Africa supply cocoa to international giants such as Hershey’s, M&M Mars and Nestlé, linking them irrefutably to child slavery and human trafficking.
According to spokeswoman for the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, Susan Smith, “A ‘slave free’ label would hurt the people it was intended to help” by prompting a boycott of all chocolate farmed in the Ivory Coast. Since cacao beans farmed by free workers are mixed with those farmed by slaves, it is impossible for even Fair Trade Certified brands to guarantee that their product can’t be traced back to child slavery.
– Lydia Caswell