There are certain culinary experiences that supersede usual socio barriers like language, class, and national boarders. To mention the word chocolate anywhere in the world is to be met with a myriad of responses from decadent and indulgent to pure, intimate, comfort. Yet for as much of a unifier as chocolate can be there is also a huge division within the industry itself between those who harvest the raw cacao and those who sell and consume the end product. Most of the workers and farmers who deal in the earliest stages of chocolate production belong to a socioeconomic group known at the bottom billion. This refers to the world’s poorest populous, around one billion people, who earn the equivalent of less than one dollar a day. The chocolate industry itself, however, is a $100 billion dollar business annually. It is a shocking disparity of wealth distribution and a problem that demands a closer look.
Extreme poverty is a treacherous opponent to both those suffering from it and those looking to alleviate it. This is due to the fact that when approaching situations of destitution it is usually the symptoms of poverty which most notice first. In the case of cacao production, these symptoms often manifest as gender inequality in the form of women being paid drastically lower wages as well as child abduction, human trafficking, and child labor. While it is undeniable that these issues are actively unjust and violate many human rights laws, these symptoms are not actually the root of the problem within the chocolate industry. The foundational problem is an inheritance of poverty that persists in third world communities due to corruption –both of governments and private wealth, and a lack of sustainable efforts that might effectively change the status quo of communal norms that so often accept and persist in the paradigm of poverty.
The history of how what first world nations now know as chocolate is riddled with the conquest of the new world and Anglicization of south American traditions which date back to the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula. Research has discovered that for almost a thousand years before the Spanish ever settled in South America this culture had been perfecting various types of cacao beverages for their ruling class. (Coe) It was Christopher Columbus who first introduced Europe to cacao in the 1500’s thus setting off the chain reaction of European refinement of cacao, the introduction of sugar, and eventually the social indulgence of expensive chocolate houses (Coe, Wheaterford). Embedded in the history is the ever-expanding socioeconomic gap between the farmers of cacao and the European wealthy consumption of the end product. To this day the disparity between how much the industry yields as a business versus how little the farmers receive of that wealth is startling.
Looking forward potential solutions must address the complicated issues previously mentioned -gender inequality and child labor, while also targeting the root of the disparity problem, which is poverty itself. A promising potential retaliation against these issues is a system specifically designed to assist impoverished individuals on a small scale but sustainable level called micro-lending. Developed by Bangladeshi professor, Muhammad Yunus, the system allows people who are denied loans from banks an opportunity to specifically loan small amounts of money to start or further their businesses. Grameen Bank, and several other organizations inspired by it’s success, provides free education about finance, social support groups, and safety nets for the emergencies that so often afflict those struggling to simply provide food for their families. Statistics show that 40 to 50 million people rely on cacao for their primary source of income and of that 80%-90% of that cacao is grown on smallholder farms. The current temperature of these farms in both South America and Africa is that women, despite providing an extreme value to the production process, are underappreciated and paid significantly less. Children are also required to work on the farms. Usually these are children of the family who owns the farm however in the early 1990’s verification of child trafficking and child slavery began to surface within the cacao industry. (Ryan)
Micro lending offers a solution to both of these issues. As Quoted by Yunus in an interview with Nightly Business Report:
“Soon we saw that money going to women brought much more benefit to the family than money going to the men. So we changed our policy and gave a high priority to women. As a result, now 96% of our four million borrowers in Grameen Bank are women.”
By investing trust and money in the women of the families who are contributing to or starting their own family business, you are thereby also providing them power and social pull in decision making by giving them the power to choose how to spend.
The implications for child wellness are also exciting. Were the owners of a small cacao farm to take out a micro loan, it offers the parents of these children the chance to hire adults in the community looking for work and thus enables the children a chance at education. With a single micro-loan the business has the opportunity to grow from having much more capable bodies manning difficult machinery and toxic chemicals, contribute to the local economy by hiring adults in need of employment, dissuades the need for utilizing trafficked children, and furthers the overall well being of their own children by giving them a chance to receive an education which will inherently be invested back into the community long term.
The legacy of chocolate has spanned centuries, united cultures, crossed oceans, and overcome language barriers. The legacy of chocolate has also left billions to scrounge for the basic necessities of survival. The power behind such a force as this industry could have the potential to rectify wrongs if harnessed by a sustainable economic approach such as micro- finance.
Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996. Print.
“Muhammad Yunus, Banker to the World’s Poorest Citizens, Makes His Case – Knowledge@Wharton.” KnowledgeWharton Muhammad Yunus Banker to the Worlds Poorest Citizens Makes His Case Comments. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.
Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed, 2011. Print.
Weatherford, Jack. “All about Chocolate — History.” All about Chocolate — History. N.p., n.d. Web.
Yunus, Muhammad, and Alan Jolis. Banker to the Poor: Micro-lending and the Battle against World Poverty. New York: PublicAffairs, 1999. Print.