Why Cacao Slavery Still Exists

Slavery is a horrible but inescapable remnant of history.  The “transatlantic slave trade transported between 10 million and 12 million enslaved Africans across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas from the 16th to 19th century” (Lewis).  This slavery originated in the development of the new world, particularly from a high demand for raw materials in European and American markets.  Little help from industrial machines in these centuries to grow and harvest crops translated to an extreme need for human labor.

Slavery slowly ended around the world beginning in the mid to late 19th century.  In the United States, slavery was abolished by the 13th Amendment in 1865.  The end of slavery caused extreme concern about having enough labor to maintain a plentiful food supply.  Fortunately, the timeline of the industrial revolution coincides with the end of slavery.  The United States and many other countries developed machines to maintain high production but minimize the amount of necessary labor.  Specifically, the development and increased use of tractors began in the late 1800s then and has only continued to increase, enabling food production to be higher today than ever before.  With these modern developments, a single farmer can plant, care for, and harvest hundreds of acres for many different types of plants almost entirely alone.

Cacao Plantation (https://thechocolatejournalist.com/tanzania-changes-rules-african-cacao/)

However, outside of the United States although official slavery has ended, indirect forms of slavery persist, primarily in Africa and regions in Central and South America.  This prevalence uniquely overlaps with the growing regions of cacao with top cacao producers being the “Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, and Ecuador” (Leissle 43).  Cacao only grows in these regions because it requires a very specific environment to grow properly.  Sophie D. Coe and Michael D. Coe explain this in their book the True History of Chocolate, “With very few exceptions, [the cacao tree] refuses to bear fruit outside a band of 20 degrees north and 20 degrees south of the Equator” (Coe & Coe 24).  In these areas, cacao is grown on plantations which often consist of thousands of trees.  These trees are planted and live up to 100 years, often producing cacao pods after five years (“History of Cocoa”).  The cacao pods develop directly from the trunk of the tree.  The trees also produce cacao pods continuously throughout the year, such that a tree could have ripe cacao pods, developing cacao pods, and flowers that may eventually become cacao pods all at the same time.  All these factors combine and make the cacao plant extremely difficult to mechanize.  Considering the example of corn, nearly all the stages of corn production can be done with a tractor–planting, fertilizing, harvesting, and more.  However, cacao is grown on a tree, so a farmer can’t go through the field with a combine to collect the crop.  Nearly all the corn is mature at the same time which enables a single massive harvesting compared to cacao with varying ripeness meaning harvesters must collect cacao pods regularly.  Essentially, cacao is unique by having a production process directly at odds with mechanization, meaning a lot of labor is needed.  While cacao’s labor-intensive growing process may not be the cause of the lingering of slavery-like practices, there is a striking correlation. 

Cacao Producing Regions (https://saltsidedownchocolates.wordpress.com/tag/chocolate-growing-regions/)

Furthermore, even if a revolutionary tractor or cacao harvester was developed, the unique geographical challenges of these regions would pose a significant barrier to successful use.  These regions are often rainforests or have near rainforest-like conditions, which should not be surprising since cacao “demands year-round moisture” and “if it does not get it, it sheds its otherwise evergreen leaves in a protest” (Coe & Coe 19).  This rainfall saturates the land and creates an enemy to large equipment—mud.  Tractors and other forms of machinery are already large and heavy and subsequent loading of heavy pods or whatever crop only makes them heavier.  Driving these massive heavy machines over the saturated land causes them to sink and get stuck, significantly slowing down the production process.  As explained by Chuck Kerchner of Zorzal Cacao in class, issues with transportation and large equipment is a common problem in these areas that is often overlooked.

Map of Global Precipitation (https://www.dwd.de/EN/ourservices/gpcc/gpcc.html)

In summary, cacao production is difficult to mechanize and even if you could develop a machine that helps with the production, the geographical features pose additional challenges in creating a consistent and sustainable mechanized production process.  This creates a large demand for human labor and is likely linked with the reason forms of slavery persist today.  However, we must strive to combat human trafficking and slavery, even though there is no clear solution.   Terminating cacao production is unreasonable to many and unlikely considering the millions of consumers around the world who eat chocolate.  For this reason, we must consider and explore developing new varieties of cacao that can be grown in different areas and in a different way.  Hopefully, this will encourage mechanization and make it feasible.  GMOs, while controversial, can help those who need help most.  GMO rice known as golden rice has been fortified with vitamin A and is being used to provide better nutrition to people who would otherwise be susceptible to blindness and other ailments.  A genetically modified cacao plant may be able to help those who need it most in a different way, by ending human trafficking and the slavery faced by cacao workers today. 

Works Cited

“Chocolate Business Trip Needed.” Salt Side Down Chocolates Blog, saltsidedownchocolates.wordpress.com/tag/chocolate-growing-regions/.

Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd ed., Thames and Hudson, 2013.

“Global Precipitation Climatology Centre.” Wetter Und Klima – Deutscher Wetterdienst – Our Services – Global Precipitation Climatology Centre (GPCC), www.dwd.de/EN/ourservices/gpcc/gpcc.html.

Hazard, Anthony. “The Atlantic Slave Trade: What Too Few Textbooks Told You – Anthony Hazard.” YouTube, TedED, 22 Dec. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3NXC4Q_4JVg.

 “History of Cocoa.” Growing Chocolate: History, hawaiianchocolate.com/growing_chocolate_history.html.

Leissle, Kristy.  Cocoa.  1st ed., Polity Press, 2018.

Lewis, Thomas. “Transatlantic Slave Trade.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 7 Sept. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/transatlantic-slave-trade.

Sharon. “TANZANIA CHANGES THE RULES FOR AFRICAN CACAO.” The Chocolate Journalist, 2 Dec. 2016, thechocolatejournalist.com/tanzania-changes-rules-african-cacao/.

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