Human Rights, Poverty, and Chocolate



The emotional and psychological response to chocolate in first world countries is charged with over a century of the industry marketing their products as indulgent, luxurious, with just a hint of exclusivity. Advertisements charged with sexualized images of beautiful women, trinkets of wealth, and chocolate overwhelm television, billboards, and the internet. Yet, for all of this stigma there is a shocking other side to the powerful business of international chocolate. Within the Big Chocolate industry there are human rights violations that keep the cogs of the machine running. Forced child labor, unsafe, toxic, working conditions, human trafficking, and extreme poverty afflict thousands of cacao farmers globally. (Nieburg 1) International ignorance to this terrifying reality, among several other factors, have not only aided in the persistence of these violations, but the necessity of them for farmers to make any form of profit. This article explores the problems in depth and proposes a series of responses from the global community, which could save lives and create a saver future for the international farming community in the developing world.

Forced Child Labor, Trafficking, and The Working Conditions of Cacao Farming:

The chocolate purchased from our sprawling grocery stores or neon gas stations originates from a sensitive and temperamental plant called the cacao tree. This tree produces pods containing the seeds that, when processed, become the chocolate first worlds obsess over. However, harvesting these pods and maintaining the trees is exhausting, difficult, work that needs to be performed manually. Because the demand is so high and the nature of the work so gruesome it is commonplace for farmers to purchase kidnapped boys between the ages of 12-16 to meet the need for cheap labor; however there have been reports of children as young as 5 working on cacao farms. (Chanthavong 1) However it is not merely boys caught in this system. In fact, 40% of the children who work on these farms are girls, some of whom remain on the farms for a few months, while others work under these conditions through adulthood. (FEP 1) These children will spend upwards of 12 hours a day using harsh chemicals to keep the fruits free of pests as well as handling chainsaws and extremely sharp machetes while dangling from ladders and tree limbs. (FEP 1)

Chocolate Child Worker

Along with the physical difficulties of the work, often these children are often brutally beaten by farmers for working too slowly while others are being kept against their will and beaten as a consequence for trying to escape. There have been reports of children and adult workers being held in locked rooms overnight where they sleep on wooden planks and do not have access to clean water or sanitary bathrooms. (FEP 1)


As horrific as the physical tortures of these farms are, there are also mental and emotional violations inflicted on these children through the denial of their education. Studies have shown that especially their ability to read and excel at mathematics is inhibited most likely do to fatigue. Researcher Marjie Sackett states, “Labor Organization (ILO) study challenges the IITA findings by suggesting that the number of nonfamily laborers is much higher than previously thought, with possibly a third of cocoa farms utilizing labor outside the family.” (Sackett 85)


The conditions of the work and the ghastly treatment of children, the enforcement of slave labor at all, are sadly symptoms to a much bigger disease: poverty. Situations of extreme destitution plague the countries where cacao is farmed and large chocolate companies have no hesitation to exploit the cheap labor of the impoverished.

The Truth About Poverty:

The economic disparity between the profits of Big Chocolate and the earnings of the farmers of cacao is startling. According to Oxfam, cacao farmers are surviving on less than $1.25 USD a day. (Nieburg 1) Systemic poverty is a devastating problem for over a billion people worldwide. It’s symptoms range from malnutrition and starvation to complete lack of medical attention and education. It forces children into prostitution and parents, often fathers, into severe depression, alcoholism, and domestic abuse. (CI 1) It’s roots are often in corrupt governments, corrupt private parties, and poorly researched aid efforts which frequently cause more harm than help. (Shah 1)


What Can Be Done?

Charity has been the most common response to systemic poverty over the last several decades. It can take many forms but most of us are familiar with the classics. –Donating old clothes and other items to an organization that gives them to families in need as well as paying a monthly stipend to help support children whose families cannot afford to feed, let alone, educate them.

At first glance none of these things seem offensive in the least. In fact, were any of us to meet someone who claimed to participate in all of these activities the guidelines of civilized society would indicate that this was an especially generous and compassionate person.

Yet part of the biggest problem with modern day charity is that we are satisfied with simply the first glance. There is not a drive or curiosity to delve into the depths of where our money, time, and effort really goes or how it actually affects the very systems we are attempting to dissipate. Were the individuals who participate in these kinds of charities able to take a self actualized analysis of themselves, most would discover their involvement was more about making them feel better about themselves rather than contributing to a better existence for those that they are “helping”.

It’s a harsh accusation and one I do not take lightly. I implore you to consider each unintended consequence to the charities mentioned above.


To the individual who donates their clothes:

In the instance of donating to charities that give items such as clothing away, especially in areas of extreme destitution, what happens to the local tailor in that village? What happens to the family who runs a second hand clothing store in that town? By giving items to areas that already have fragile local economies we are threatening the few businesses that have proven themselves strong enough to survive. Introducing goods and products that have value but cost the consumer nothing we are forcing small business owners out of business. To make matters worse, because charity is a non-sustainable system these surplus periods of free goods and products eventually end. When the charity “has helped the community enough” and move on to the next, what will those people do when six month later they need school uniforms for their children but the tailor has gone out of business?

Alternatives to this method of giving would be investing that money into the local businesses. With a base level of research you can find information about these small establishments and find creative ways to work with them. Rather than donating clothes to the community you might sell those clothes in your own community and invest the money in purchasing a better sewing machine for the business. This gives the business the opportunity to expand and create jobs for their community, which gives the community an increased opportunity to invest back into itself.

Monthly Monetary Giving:

Several charities exist where participants have the option to “sponsor” or be “sponsored”. These organizations are usually structured so that for a small monthly fee you can help support a child or family or refugee in a developing nation(CI1). While there are actually several redeeming factors about many of these organizations the fact remains that this is not an investment in another human based on the idea that this person or persons can succeed according to their own merits, it’s an offering rooted in the lie that these people cannot provide for themselves if given the proper resources and therefore need outside handouts.

What if we changed the way we see the developing world? What if we could change the way we think about poverty and wealth? It is evident that the solution is far more complicated that simply redistributing money from the wealthy to the poor. If that worked we would have seen a drastic impact on global poverty over the last six decades however not only have we not seen the desired results, we also have very little understanding of where two trillion dollars of aid actually ended up (Fortin1).

A better alternative is micro lending. This is a system created by Bangladeshi professor and visionary Muhammad Yunus where anyone can offer small loans to business owners or entrepreneurs in developing nations through their bank. The money is paid back over an agreed upon amount of time and by the end of the process not only has a small business sprouted but the business owner now has credit –something denied to most who have come from systemic poverty. When the money is paid back you as the lender have the option of reinvesting in a new company or simply keeping it. Not only is this system completely sustainable but it also mostly lends to women leading to societal feminine empowerment and community building without direct interference from an outside party. (PBS1)

Final Thoughts:

The chocolate industry is one of many offenders that have taken the reality of systemic poverty and used it to exploit the vulnerable. By researching the products we purchase and the policies of the companies from which those product come we can help alleviate these issues, in part, just through the choices we make at the grocery store.


Chanthavong, Samlanchith. “I. Identification.” Chocolate and Slavery. Web. 11 May 2016.

Children Internatiinal (CI). “How to Sponsor a Child in Need | Children International | Kid Sponsorship.” Children’s International. Web. 15 May 2016.

Compassion International (CI). “Quick Facts About Poverty.” Poverty Facts. Web. 11 May 2016.

Food Empowerment Project [FEP]. “Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry.” Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry. Web. 11 May 2016.

Fortin, Jacey. “Trillion Dollar Theft: In Developing Countries, Staggering Losses Due To Corruption Exceed Incoming Aid, Says Report.” International Business Times. 2013. Web. 15 May 2016.

Nieburg, Oliver. “Paying the Price of Chocolate: Breaking Cocoa Farming’s Cycle of Poverty.” Web. 11 May 2016.

PBS. “Q&A with Muhammad Yunus.” PBS. PBS. Web. 16 May 2016.

Sackett, Marjie. “Forced Child Labor and Cocoa Production in West Africa.” Human Rights & Human Welfare. 1 March 2014

Shah, Anup. “Causes of Poverty.” – Global Issues. Web. 11 May 2016.

United Nations. “The Universal Declaration of Human Rights | United Nations.”UN News Center. UN. Web. 11 May 2016.


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