Cacao and Chocolate Exploited

Chocolate’s history is one full of rampant exploitation and profit-gouging. Beginning and in origin as an ancient Meso-American staple for religious and cultural ceremony, it is now widely known almost solely for its desert-like presentation. When Hernando Cortes discovered the Aztecs, he was welcomed in by King Montezuma, who treated him to a banquet including chocolate in the form of a somewhat bitter tasting drink. European distaste for the cacao drink quickly gave way to a sweetened form of the ‘delicacy’ more suited to European luxury (Smithsonian Magazine). The transformation of the cacao bean was rapid, as European royalty and the rich began to use it in an almost fashionable and status-gaining way. Discovered in 1828 by a Dutch man named Coenraad Johannes van Houten, the process of transforming cacao beans into cocoa powder using a hydraulic press allowed for a certain commercialization of chocolate. Previously, chocolate had been strictly served in drink form, but by 1850, when a man named Joseph Fry experimented with adding cacao butter to cacao powder, forming a solid chocolate (World Cocoa Foundation). Using sugar to make it sweeter, and physical tools to make it more industrial and marketable, Europeans quickly realized that chocolate could be mass produced as a global luxury food item, causing a massive and immediate explosion in the newfound and newly created ‘chocolate industry’.

The European processing of Chocolate which brought it into big industry.

Chocolate as we know it today is a relatively new concept, having been formed and created over the last two centuries. The issues that have been caused in wake of this rapid development are issues synonymous to the same problems that most agricultural cropping processes encounter. Exploited labor, massive exportation, and profit-gouging are rampant within the cocoa produce industry. It is estimated that nearly ninety percent of all cacao is grown on small family farms of a few acres, meaning that it passes through multiple sets of hands and transactions before making it to actual production. Consequentially, the majority of around 5 million cacao farmers live in poverty. Entirely profit driven, cacao is processed in countries and places like America, Canada, and Europe, half a world removed from the places of production origin, such as South America and Africa, meaning that it is easy for chocolate companies to claim ignorance to the fact that their growers are using child-labor, deforestation slash and burn techniques, and living in poverty themselves.

The deforestation in Cote d’Ivoire.

Corporations are inherently created and driven by massive profit margins, and though it isn’t always necessary that they maintain those margins, it is very difficult for massive beasts such as Nestlé, which employs an estimated 308,000 people, to justify a self-imposed and willing profit loss. Though it isn’t ethically right for these companies to pay their producers so little and so unfairly, reform is a much slower and more difficult process than it seems from the outside. In most, if not all, opinions, removing child labor altogether from the industry would be a major win, however, it’s estimated that in order to incentivize farmers in Africa and South America to remove children from their workforce, they would need to be paid at least fifty percent more for their crops (Sapiens), which would cause major ripples among the profit margins for these major companies.

Less profit for Nestlé means lower wages for employees and less production, but more importantly, it means less money flowing into the chocolate market. These are the factors that come into play when legislation ignores the fact that cacao production in its current form is harmful to the people and environments that it touches. Though that reasoning should and will never justify the use of forced child labor, it goes to show that this is a very ‘complex’ issue, with many factors at play, making decisions harder and harder for lawmakers and corporations alike. Unfortunately, the answer to these issues may be found in the extreme degradation of the cacao and chocolate industries. To draw a parallel of sorts, in the 1880s, at the peak of the cattle industry, a cow raised and bred in South Texas could be purchased for $10 but sold for $40 in most other states. This led to the exploitation of both labor and land in Texas, causing ranchers to overgraze and overstock their land in an effort to pay their impoverished cowboys, who made a mere $30 per month. Soon enough, prices were low due to a flood of beef in the market, and the industry collapsed, calling for a new set of reforms and regulations regarding acres/cow, cattle head maximum/ranch etc. Since the crash of the cattle industry in the late 1880s, there was an overall betterment of the industry for about a century, until large feedlot beef corporations started to profit gouge much like the Nestlés of the chocolate industry. Since the 1980s, the cattle industry in America has seen a similar trend of exploitation and unsustainable farming techniques used in order to make ends meet, but it is on a slow decline that will eventually correct itself yet again. The point I aim to make is that massive change within industry is both slow to move and incredibly difficult to set in action. Though the proof that change is needed is out there, the truth and way of our current world is that big change needs time, and maybe the cacao industry is close to that breaking point.


Fiegl, Amanda. “A Brief History of Chocolate.”, Smithsonian Institution, 1 Mar. 2008,

“History of Cocoa.” World Cocoa Foundation, 31 Jan. 2020,

Carr, Teresa. “The Bitter Side of Cocoa Production.” SAPIENS, USAID/Flickr, 13 Feb. 2020,

“Cocoa Prices and Income of Farmers.” Make Chocolate Fair!, 25 Mar. 2014,

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