The Good, the Bad and the Savory. (Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate?)

By Robbins, John | Earth Island Journal, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

The Good, the Bad and the Savory. (Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate?)


Robbins, John, Earth Island Journal


CHOCOLATE. The very word conjures feelings of pleasure, sensuality, and the richness of life. The scientific name of the tree that produces the beans we use for chocolate, likewise bespeaks the depth of feeling human beings have always had for chocolate. It is Theobroma cacao. The name of the genus, Theobroma, comes from two Greek words: theos, meaning gods, and broma, meaning foods. Thus, literally, "food of the gods."

Most of us, though, aren't all that concerned with the history or chemistry of chocolate. We're content so long as the market shelves remain well stocked with affordable tins of cocoa and bars of chocolate candy.

Or at least that's how it was until the summer of 2001, when the Knight Ridder Newspapers ran a series of investigative articles that revealed a very dark side to our chocolate consumption. In riveting detail, the series profiled young boys who were sold as slaves to Ivory Coast cocoa farmers.

Ivory Coast, located on the southern coast of West Africa, is by far the world's largest supplier of cocoa beans, providing 43 percent of the world's supply. There are 600,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast which together account for one-third of the nation's entire economy.

According to a 2000 investigative report by the BBC, hundreds of thousands of children in Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo are being purchased from their destitute parents and shipped to the Ivory Coast, where they are sold as slaves to cocoa farms. These children, ranging in age from 12 to 14 years (and sometimes younger), are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, barely fed and beaten regularly. They are viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.

"The beatings were a part of my life," Aly Diabate, a freed slave, told reporters. "Anytime they loaded you with bags for cocoa beans] and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again."

Slavery Past and Present

The ownership of one human being by another is illegal in Ivory Coast (as it is in every other country in the world today) but that doesn't mean slavery has ceased to exist. Rather, it has simply changed its form.

Filmmakers Brian Woods and Kate Blewett recently completed a film about child slaves in African cocoa fields. "It isn't the slavery we are all familiar with," says Brian Woods since, under traditional slavery, "a slave owner could produce documents to prove ownership. Modern slaves are cheap and disposable."

In times past, we had slaveowners. Now we have slaveholders. In both cases, the slave is forced to work by violence or the threat of violence, paid nothing, given only that which keeps him or her able to continue to work, is not free to leave, and can be killed without significant legal consequence. In many cases, non-ownership turns out to be in the financial interest of slaveholders, who now reap all the benefits of ownership without the obligations and legal responsibilities.

Kevin Bales is author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy and director of Free The Slaves, an American branch of Anti-Slavery International. Bales points out that one of the economic drawbacks of the old slavery was the cost of maintaining slaves who were too young or too old to work. Children rarely brought in more than they cost until the age of 10 or 12 (though they were put to work as early as possible). Slavery was profitable, but the profitability was diminished by the cost of keeping infants, small children, and unproductive old people. The new slavery avoids this extra cost and so increases its profits.

In the United States, the old slavery consisted primarily of bringing people against their will from Africa. Bales says that before the Civil War, the cost to purchase the average slave amounted to the equivalent of $50,000 (in today's dollars). …

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