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A peak into the horrors of the chocolate industry...

*Spoiler alert for ‘Rotten’ Season 2 Episode 5 ‘Bitter Chocolate’*

I’m not going to be that person who recommends the usual stuff from horror, dramas or cooking shows. No, today I’m going to introduce ‘Rotten’ and get you thinking about where your food comes from.

First, let’s play a game. Guess this food:

  1. Mayans once saw it as ‘food of the gods’;

  2. Many now see it as a food for after break-ups or bad moods;

  3. It’s sweet and mostly dark-coloured;

  4. Its industry uses the blood, sweat and tears from Cote D’ Ivorian farmers to supply their raw ingredients.

It’s chocolate. The one you buy for $6 a bar.

It’s hard to believe, but 38% of the world’s cacao is supplied by the Ivory Coast. Produced mostly by smallholder farmers on land averaging less than 5 hectares in size, cocoa is a crop in which they receive poverty-level wages. Indeed, findings from a study conducted by the French Development Agency and Barry Callebaut (the world largest chocolate producer) found that cocoa farmers earned approximately 568 West African Franc (USD $1) per day. While a typical farmer household needs about USD $6133 yearly for a decent standard of living (including food, water, education and other essential needs), the average household income is only USD $2700 - way below the World Bank’s extreme poverty line. Poverty means farmers often have to choose between feeding their families or investing in their farms, with the latter often omitted at the cost of sustainable, diversified farming. When crop disease strikes, farmers' salaries fall even lower, thus driving them deeper into a vicious cycle of poverty.

These challenges are aggravated by a disastrous price decline for commodity cocoa between September 2016 and February 2017, with some farmers’ incomes falling by as much as 37%. Several factors triggered this crisis: relatively low demand in established markets meant a lack of consumers; predictions that China and India would buy more chocolate was false; favourable weather resulted in overabundant harvests and a surplus of cocoa. In short, the demand didn’t meet the supply.

Another part of the problem is that cocoa farmers receive only a part of the world market price for beans, a price calculated from local trading structures, taxes and the quality of the beans. The supply chain is complicated: it goes from the farmer to the pisteur (the transporter) to the village collector to the cooperative, onto the exporters and eventually a processor, before selling to the chocolatiers and then to consumers. In an industry where 10 parties touch a share of the price before the beans are sold, the price of chocolate becomes disproportionately shared amongst all entities. Because farmers are rarely organised and lack insight into market trends for cocoa prices, they are forced to sell their cocoa at prices dictated by the intermediaries.

With such low wages, Ivorian farmers often can’t afford to send their children to school and use them on the farm instead. Other cocoa farmers struggle to make ends meet, and so turn to child labour to stay competitive. There are approximately 2 million children between ages 10-17 in Cote D’ Ivorie working long days (with reports of some children working 80-100 hours a week) in dangerous conditions for little to no pay. Many children are from neighbouring countries tricked into leaving their homes with promises of education and are instead forced to harvest cocoa. And if slavery, exploitation, and pesticide exposure is not enough, the children harvesting the cocoa are also exposed to many other safety and health hazards, such as:

  • Musculoskeletal injuries from repetitive and forceful movements, lifting and carrying heavy or awkward loads

  • Heat exhaustion

  • High levels of sun exposure, which can result to skin cancer

  • Injuries from cutting tools, ranging from minor cuts to severing of body parts

  • Skin abrasions

  • Being hit by falling cocoa pods

  • Snake and insect bites

  • Long working hours

  • Stress

What is especially unacceptable about this form of child labour is the lack of action by chocolatier companies. Eight of the biggest chocolate companies signed a pledge in 2001 to eradicate 70% of ‘the worst forms of child labour’ from their West African cocoa suppliers by 2005 —a deadline they missed. They also missed interim targets in 2005, 2010 and 2015. The truth is that consumers today have no sure way of knowing if the chocolates they are buying involve the use of slavery or child labour.

Poverty and child labour are just a small part of a larger problem. ‘Rotten’ also highlighted the rampant deforestation happening within Cavally National Park (Côte d'Ivoire) to make way for illegal cocoa plantations. Reports found that up to 500,000 tonnes of cocoa were grown inside protected areas, with entire villages and towns popping up in their path. Marahoué Park and Mont Péko Park, for example, each contain an illegal population of around 30,000 people. Their presence is an open secret, with homes and public services in plain sight of government authorities who have turned a blind eye to protected areas for decades. Thankfully, Ivory Coast has pledged to begin reforestation. But reclaiming will take time - Mighty Earth campaign director Etelle Higonnet stresses that replanting has to be extensive: “Forty per cent shade, around 70 trees per hectare. Not some wishy-washy greenwashing at 10 or 20 trees per hectare. That won’t save either Ghana or Ivory Coast from an environmental cataclysm in 20 years.” Higonnet says these problems are not the fault of farmers but because of a system full of iniquity and corruption.

Now faced with rising consumer concern over the ethics of their chocolate, brands like Cargill and Nestlé have begun programs focused on creating a sustainable livelihood for farmers.

The chocolate industry is also developing and financially supporting programs to rescue and rehabilitate children that work in cocoa farms. Yet, these are just baby steps toward abolishing this shameful practice. Even with the technology today, we're still a long way off for seeing every cacao bean is 100% traceable. Ultimately, until 100% traceability can be achieved across the entire chocolate industry, there will always be a risk that cheap chocolates use child labour and unprotected land.

Still, life is not completely hopeless. You don’t need to sit there feeling shocked. A productive way will be to research further into the chocolate industry and share your knowledge. You can also purchase ethical, sustainable chocolates that are good alternatives to the ones being produced by big companies. Here is a link for recommendations:

Indeed, ‘Rotten’ is a special show: it is thought-provoking, well-researched, engaging and encouraging us to think about what we put in our bodies. Sure, chocolate can bring joy into any one of our lives, but beware, behind that silvered paper lies a dark tale of poverty, child labour, and deforestation.

Written by Kadence Wong

Edited by Eunice Pang

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