It’s February! And February is the month when advertisers vie for a piece of the Valentine pie as we purchase romantic treats for our sweeties, because February is the month when we celebrate love!
And so I figured, then, that this would be the perfect month to write about slavery—which, if you were planning on buying or baking a chocolate morsel for your significant other, you are very likely complicit in. Still. In the 21st century.
It’s really quite shocking. We now live in a world where it’s possible to have the noblest intentions while perpetrating terrible evil that we are completely ignorant of. It is an insidious problem. The long and far-removed supply chains that provide goods such as cocoa* often hide uncomfortable truths like this one: part of the reason why that box of chocolates is so very affordable is that children in West Africa may well have been forced to harvest the cocoa under dangerous and abusive circumstances.
Every year, scores of children under the age of 15—some as young as 5—are rescued from cocoa farms where they have been using chainsaws and burning brush to clear areas for planting. They are given machetes to harvest and process cocoa beans. They use industrial chemicals with no protective equipment. They carry loads that are too heavy for them. In the worst cases, the children are fed poorly, have no access to clean water, and are beaten if they are not moving quickly enough.
It is true that the sad reality is that many children on cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast (where the vast majority of the world’s cocoa is produced) are there voluntarily to help support their families—poverty in this part of the world is still extreme. But it is also true that many children have been sold to the farms by their relatives or abducted from neighbouring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso. This is called human trafficking, and it is lamentably true that most chocolate manufacturers still in 2016 cannot ensure buyers that human trafficking and child slavery were not involved in the production of their chocolate.
Reliable, up-to-date numbers are difficult to find, but suffice it to say that by all reports there is still a significant likelihood that the chocolate we buy from most major producers is tainted by cocoa that was made by forced child labour, which really isn’t acceptable.
The good news is that several documentaries and exposés in the past decades have shed light on the ongoing injustices in cocoa farming, resulting in public pressure to address the problems. There is now an international effort by industry and government to work toward growing cocoa ethically.
The bad news is that the industry has been dragging its feet. In 2001 the Harkin-Engel Protocol was ratified in which the chocolate industry agreed (among other things) to develop a standard by which chocolate could be certified as having been produced with no forced child labour. This was to be implemented by 2005. And then when they didn’t implement it by 2005 they agreed to 2008. But 2008 didn’t happen. So make it 2010. And then, well, um, no, actually, it’ll have to be 2020.
And yet, in 2014, when World Vision produced its Chocolate Scorecard in various countries, of the 10 major chocolate producers questioned in Canada, only 4 responded that they were committed to sourcing only ethical cocoa by 2020 in accordance with the protocol.
There are a number of reasons—some legitimate, some rooted in greed and self-interest—why it is taking so long for the chocolate industry to regulate itself properly. It’s all a lot more complicated than I am able to discuss thoroughly here.
But I think that when you go to buy that fancy box of truffles for your Valentine this year, or pick out that bar of dark chocolate for your secret Brownies Suprême recipe, you should make the effort to verify that the chocolate has been ethically sourced, and pay the premium for it—you were going to splurge a bit anyway. Besides, how romantic is it, really, to give your lover something that involved child slavery in its production?
*And cocoa is just one of many products with this sort of issue. The 2014 US Department of Labour TVPRA report lists “136 goods from 74 countries that … are produced by child labour or forced labour in violation of international standards”