Historical Exposition – The Extractive Story of Cacao and Labor

While first indigenous to the Western hemisphere, cacao and its products are inarguably a global phenomenon. Essentially from first contact between the “Old” and “New” worlds, much like many other commodities, cacao’s history changed rapidly to reflect a globalized market. One important facet of this history is the relationship between cacao and those that cultivate it. In this blog post I seek to dive into the history and evolution of the labor surrounding cacao, specifically highlighting crucial areas of change and key characteristics that have remained static. I argue that while much has changed since the first colonial contact centuries ago, the story of cacao and labor has been one of extraction in a broad sense of the word. By “extraction,” I hope to encompass both the literal definition of taking and removing , as well as the more nebulous separation of the physical labor and production value. Ultimately, I believe that while the labor structures surrounding cacao production have transformed, from explicit slave labor to more market-based practices today, the process has always deemphasized the humanization of the laborer in favor of the bottom line. 

From the beginning of colonial times, indigenous peoples and resources were quickly commodified by Europeans and sought after for their market value. There is no such better example of this than the divergent path cacao takes in the 15th and 16th century from traditional native use to colonial extraction. Kathryn Sampeck provides a case study of this by focusing on the Izalcos region of present day El Salvador (2). Before the arrival of the Spanish, Mesoamerican societies used the cacao for consumption in various rituals and cultural traditions, as well as a tool for exchange (Sampek 7). However, colonization changed cacao entirely, from its production which rapidly started to rely on imported slave labor, to its eventual production value as an exported good and solidified currency. Here, Sampek makes clear that by divorcing the labor of cacao from its social nature with “commodity money,” there is a form of violence at play in a Marxist sense (19-20). This concept becomes a useful lens to apply to our historical analysis of cacao production, as we can see repeatedly that despite the labels or details of the production changing, the humanity of the labor is never emphasized and laborers are simply used as a means to the ends of production. 

A clear demonstration of this transformation of the human laborer into a tool like an axe or a grind stone that is utilized for production comes from the 19th century engraving of slaves being transported (OpenDemocracy, Everett Historical/Shutterstock). Here, the African people are literally being moved like livestock or even bags of grain. Tied together at the neck, there is no agency or individuality, yet also no sense of community or social group. While this form of labor dehumanization was not unique to cacao, it played a prominent part in early cacao cultivation and as we will see, this essence of mistreatment will continue. 

Years later at the turn of the 20th century, cacao production continued but under ostensibly more “humane” conditions. For many British chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury, cacao was purchased from Portuguese colonies like Sao Tomé and Principé. These plantations purportedly had outlawed slavery and were using a system of contract labor where serviçais worked in government approved contracts in a consensual labor system (Satre 18-19). Nevertheless, reports soon developed that the laborers were in fact coerced and that conditions on these plantations were tantamount to slavery. While this apparently shocked many of the players involved in European chocolate production, change and reform were very slow to come about (Satre 93). This era of the history of cacao is another reminder that for those with the power to control the process of production, the end efficiency and profit is their paramount concern, not the rights of the workers who themselves control very little. In fact, the little that the serviçais, or even the colonial slaves, had of their own was their bodies and labor. Yet, in the system of cacao production, that too is stripped of them either by explicit force, or the force of the market that leaves them dehumanized and void. 

Today, we like to think that many humanitarian advances have been made in our market economy with the advent of “fair-trade” and greater social-conscientiousness. While it is true that much has improved, there is still important work to be done to get to the heart of the problem of cacao production. A striking example of this comes from a VPRO Metropolis video report where Western African cacao farmers were interviewed and given a taste of processed chocolate for the first time (Youtube, VPROMetropolis). It is astounding to hear the cacao farmers explain that they did not know what the beans they were producing and selling would be used for, and equally remarkable to witness their disbelief that their beans created the chocolate they are tasting. This proves that the separation of social humane labor into a mere act of work still continues today. Without even knowing what they are toiling away at, as well as not truly enjoying any of the profits or benefits of the cacao production, the farmers are genuine dehumanized cogs in a globalized machine. 

To further the point, the 2018 Cacao Barometer provides more information as to the plight of the West African cacao laborers, explaining that the average farmer income is just $0.78 a day (6). It is clear that they are not being properly compensated for their labor, only furthering their exploitation. The element of labor extraction also becomes inherently competitive as farmers are pitted against one another to drive prices down, with the trend of plunging prices due to global oversupply causing further strife for the laborers (Barometer 8). A unique issue of labor exploitation is also raised with the issue of child labor, with 2.1 million children working in West Africa alone (Barometer 15). The image from NowToronto demonstrates that the work put into cacao production is grueling, especially for children (NowToronto, SumOfUs.org). The harmful effects of labor extraction are only magnified here in the case of children as their labor as well as their futures are being robbed of them. Forfeiting an education for low-wage manual labor deprives child workers of future potential as well. 

At the end of the day, the history of cacao production is a story that has not changed deeply beyond surface appearance. Despite changes in the packaging of the market processes, those producing cacao, and many other products, are denied their humanity and stripped of their worth. As long as cacao is extracted from underprivileged communities in the same way that the work and humanity of its laborers are extracted, the oppressive history of cacao production will continue.

Works Cited 

A 19th-Century Engraving of African Captives Yoked and Walking to the Coast for Sale. Everett Historical/Shutterstock. https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/beyond-trafficking-and-slavery/uncomfortable-silences-anti-slavery-colonialism-and-imperialism/

Children Sold to Plantation Owners Form Part of Worldwide Supply Chains in the Making of Chocolate. SomeOfUs.org. https://nowtoronto.com/news/chocolate-child-labour-slavery-hersheys/

“First Taste of Chocolate in Ivory Coast.” Youtube, VPRO Metropolis, 21 Feb. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEN4hcZutO0.

Fountain, Antonie and Friedel Huetz-Adams. 2018. Cocoa Barometer. pp. 1-76.

Sampeck, Kathryn. 2019. “Cacao and Violence: Consequences of Money in Colonial Guatemala.” pp. 1-24

Satre, Lowell. 2005. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. pp. 1-32, 73-99

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