Strange Fruits: The Impact of Cacao Production on Child Labor

Child Harvesting Cacao

Historically, the practice of harvesting cacao from the cacao tree has been labor-intensive. The absence of engine-powered machinery has meant that cacao farmers must extract ripe cacao from the branch with basic tools. As global demand for chocolate continues to rise, there is increased economic pressure of cacao farmers to supply more cacao while keeping production costs low. Because of stagnant technological growth the primary means by which cacao farmers can keep their production costs down is to lower the amount that they pay for labor. Unfortunately, these pressures push farmers into employing children in order to maximize their individual profits. A historical analysis of cacao harvesting is the simplest way to understand why, despite condemnation from global organizations, the use of child labor persists in the cacao industry. The irreplaceable physical labor required for cacao harvesting creates structural needs for child labor.

The static nature with which technology for cacao harvesting has progressed generates the need for inexpensive labor. This lack of progress, however, has more to do with the physical properties of cacao trees than with industry neglect. When maturing, cacao trees are covered in flowers that once pollinated, result in large pods containing 30 to 40 cacao beans. On its own, the tree has no means to open the pods and disperse its seeds; this means that, without external forces, cacao trees would be unable to reproduce (Coe et. al. 21). Removal of the cacao pods must be done carefully as to not damage the seeds or pulp inside said pods. The photograph below depicts how one should properly remove a cacao pod from its parent tree. As you can see, the best way to remove the pods is by using a tool to cut it at its base.

How to Graft Cacao

After pods are opened, there are four steps that must be done in order to get the cacao beans ready for chocolate production: fermentation, drying, roasting, and winnowing. This sequence has remained unchanged for at least 4,000 years (22), suggesting that the extent to which technology can make cacao harvesting more efficient is minimal at best.

Since technology has a negligible effect on the future of cacao production, the most accurate vehicle by which to analyze the use of child labor in cacao harvesting is labor productivity. Structurally, children are the most economically viable source of labor for cacao harvesting because they cost the least to employ and have the greatest ability to perfect their craft.  This phenomenon persists because, historically, cacao exporters sought to exploit the most convenient demographic group for inexpensive labor. In the 1700s, for instance, the primary demographic group harvesting cacao pods was the Native Americans (190). Under the supervision of the Jesuits, Native Americans were central source of labor because they were already living in the area where cacao was growing. However, once the use of Native American labor was banned, the Jesuits relied on imported African labor to maintain their cacao production level (192). African slavery, then, became the main labor force for raw material extraction in the New World. This practice continued into the 19th century and even expanded from cacao into sugar production (Mintz 27). The general trend of shifting labor to the least expensive option explains why child labor is used today. Because children are rarely paid and are largely incapable of escaping servitude, cacao farmers are incentivized to use children to extract cacao pods from their trees. Moreover, demand to keep the cost of chocolate low provides further incentive to keep supply chain costs low. Combined with the physical barriers that come with the removal of cacao pods, market forces encourage the use of child labor.

All in all, there are a plethora of reasons why children might be used to harvest cacao. A historical approach to understanding the cacao industry reveals that there are structural forces that contribute to the use of child labor. First, because there is limited technology that can be used to extract cacao pods from their parent tree means that physical labor must be used. As a result, farmers are pressured to keep production costs low by keeping labor costs low. This pressure, secondly, creates the need to seek out the least expensive labor force. Sadly, children are the most cost effective workers to “hire” for farmers. Hence, until new technological measures become available or the cost of chocolate products increases worldwide, the issue of child labor will persist.


Works Cited

CNN. “Chocolate Child Slaves.” YouTube. YouTube, 16 Jan. 2012. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.

Make Chocolate Fair UK. 2014. Montpellier, France. Confectionery News. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin, 1985. Print.

The University of Queensland. N.d. Australia. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.


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