Modern Day Slavery: The Traditional Cash Cow of the Sugar and Chocolate Industry

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Snickers being sold for $1.29 USD at the checkout of a Kinkos printing center.

While I was checking out of a local Kinko’s printing center, the above picture was captured at the register. Two things stood out to me (since learning more about cacao production) which were A.) how out of place the chocolate seems to be in a printing center that has nothing to do with food B.) the chocolate was extremely cheap. But what seems strange to me now, happens to be the industry norm: cheap and highly accessible chocolate. But at what cost does this luxury item come? Sadly, “the food of the gods” (Martin, Lecture 1, 2015) has a long and dark history that continues to overshadow millions of people’s lives today. We start from the beginning of the story…

O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

(final verse of the Star Spangled Banner)

Land of the free. Home of the brave…America the great. These are often phrases we associate with the super power of the United States of America. Yet, we commonly forget the history and narrative that made this country so great. America the “great”, was constructed on stolen land by stolen bodies. While tracing the history of sugar and slavery, Sidney Mintz (1984) opens his book Sweetness and Power with the perfect passage to describe the previous sentiment:

I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa has been depopulated so as to have the people cultivate them. - J.H. Bernardin

What would begin as a grant in the Encomienda from the Spanish Crown would kick start a cycle that perpetually worsened and birthed the Slave Trade. The practice of stealing land and bodies would stem into a labor market that resulted in 10-15 million enslaved Africans to be forcefully stolen and survive the Atlantic journey to new lands. (Martin, Lecture 7, 2015) It should be realized, that many scholars and writers of that time saw the Slave Trade as a purely economic motive of development. More recent works come to the same conclusion of economic motivations:

“Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. [The planter] would have gone to the moon, if necessary, for labor. Africa was nearer than the moon, nearer too than the more populous countries of India and China. But their turn was to come.” 
- Eric Williams, historian & former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago 
(Martin, Lecture 6, 2015)
This map is shows the slave trade routes that were established to produce sugar and chocolate. (Martin, Lecture 7, 2015)

The African population would survive over 400 years of slave trade (Mintz, 1985). The motives for economic domination and profit gain would survive as well.

“Labor rights issues in cocoa production are nothing new. They are tradition.” –Carla Martin

Although slavery is illegal today, it has been a challenge to eradicate such a lucrative business practice for essentially no cost of production. Sadly the contemporary reality is that slavery still exists on Cacao farms, and it exploits one of the most vulnerable populations – children.



As recently as 2012 the top producing countries of cacao were: Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, and Ecuador. (Coe & Coe, pp. 197) These seven countries are responsible for more than 70% of Cacao production and suffer from some of the most extreme cases of poverty, which is one of the biggest contributions towards the continued cycle of slavery. As the International Cacao Initiative cited:

More than 14 million farmers grow cocoa, of which 10.5 million are in Africa. Almost 40-50 million people worldwide depend upon cocoa for their livelihood. Many cocoa-growing families are poor, often with little or no education, and their cocoa crop is their main source of income

With a combination of extremely poor farmers and an industry full of consumers who are ignorant to the labor production, as well as the low expectations of cacao costs, the cacao industry breeds for an environment that supports slavery. But there are some chocolate companies who are proving to be the exception, going against the rule. Nestle, a major chocolate company, has committed to abolishing slavery in cacao production by transforming their supply chain.

In a 2014 mini documentary of the Ivory Coast Cacao industry titled “Cacao-nomics“, CNN reporter Richard Quest asked Jose Lopez, Executive Vice President of Nestle, “Why do you think it took the industry so long to admit the issue of child labor?”, for which Lopez replied, “Probably because finding solutions was not as easy, but it is not such process where nothing get done and all of sudden things get done.” Lopez later commented on the industry of cacao explaining, “If things continue in the same way, the supply of cocoa will not be there.” Below tells some of the sad truths which is, most of these farmers have never tasted chocolate and will probably never will .

This highly popular meme has gone viral on TUMBLR as it was used to explain the principles of capitalism.

“Somewhere, we need to build capacity in those farmers…we need to see prosperity enter these villages. To do this, it will take time….It all has to make sense. Making sense, we are a business, is that we are able to generate returns for our shareholders. And doing that while at the same time benefitting society is possible. I believe, and we at Nestle believe that, very strongly.” -Jose Lopez, Executive Vice President of Nestle

If we are to ever see any real changes in the future, we need ALL chocolate companies to adapt this belief into a reality and follow Nestle’s footsteps in creating a more humane practice.

Works Cited
"Child Labour in Cocoa." ICI Cocoa. INTERNATIONAL COCOA INITIATIVE FOUNDATION, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <>.
Coe, Sophie D., Michael D. Coe, and Ryan J. Huxtable. The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson, 1996.
"END IT :: Shine a Light on Slavery." END IT. EndITmovement. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <>.
Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1985.
Martin, Carla. AAAS 119x Lecture 7: Sugar and Cacao. 2015.
Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate: A Cultural and Natural History of Cacao with Recipes. Random House LLC, 2009.
Quest, Richard. "Cocoa-nomics." CNN. Cable News Network, 6 Mar. 2014. Web. 8 Mar. 2015. <>


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