The history the wrapper doesn't tell.

Most unwrap their favorite chocolate bar or open their favorite box of chocolate with some understanding that their treat was not produced, bought, or sold under fair conditions; some have no idea at all what goes into making the chocolate in hand.

Video 1. A history on the labor of chocolate and fair trade.

Yet, we continue to consume chocolate at a magnificent rate without putting our inkling of knowledge regarding the injustice around cacao to practice. Many still refuse to pay extra for fair trade chocolate that puts money back into producer’s communities. The contemporary fascination of chocolate as a symbol of love and enjoyment is thus founded on a misunderstood history. We need to ask ourselves: is how we consume chocolate today superior ethically than how it was consumed in the past, in relative, moral terms?

Cacao as a commodity

Cacao was a common currency in Mesoamerica before colonization, which fit “neatly into capitalist demands” when the clash of European and Mesoamerican currency systems occured (Sampeck, 2019). Even before the clash of currency systems, ritual drinks such as cacao flavored with vanilla and annatto were basic parts of government functions and meetings, explaining why the ruling elite used cacao as a form of consolidating political and economic power (Barrerra & Aliphat, 2006). Barrerra & Aliphat also point out that chocolate was viewed as a symbol of blood and therefore was considered a precious fluid in Mesoamerican cosmogony.

Figure 1. Ancient Mayas using cacao as currency.

Following these various avenues of importance Sampeck adds that once the price of cacao became equal to the worth of labor, it became a commodity through transubstantiation, as cacao was an object intended for exchange.

Cacao in the encomienda system

Originally, cacao played a role in fertility, death, and rebirth through sacrifice; however, during colonialism it underwent a shift in terms of commodity value. According to Carla Martin, a professor at Harvard and Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute, points out that the El Salvador Izalco region was probably the first location of a chocolate recipe, and that under the encomienda system the Spanish forced large amounts of cacao (as well as other forms of labor) in South America and Mexico, then proceeded to cash the money in Spain and reap the sows of others’ labors (Martin, 2020).

Figure 2. This image shows the expansion of the Spanish Crown into Mesoamerica in a short time period. We see that the El Salvador Izalco region in modern-day Guatemala was toward the end of expansion, but weathered a drastic change in lifestyle and leadership in a short period of time.

The Pipil of the Izalcos, a people in what is present-day Guatemala, lost a significant portion of their population to the encomienda system. In the Izalcos region, the Pipil people were subjects in a M-C-M (money-commodity-money) economy, meaning it was based on buying in order to sell (Martin, 2020). The cacao beans were counted as a form of currency that the Spanish built on to found early capitalism in the area. The encomienda system was implemented by the Crown to “supervisors,” known as encomenderos. The extensification, or use of a commodity on a regular basis by an increased number of people, of cacao caused the population in the Guatemala region to decrease by 80-90% over a sixty year period, not to mention the cacao that was stolen from producers by encomenderos (Sampeck, 2019). The encomenderos did not own the people. Instead, they owned the product and the profit of the people’s labor. As early as 1636 (side note: the year Harvard was founded), people began considering the moral question of where chocolate fits into religion and everyday life (Martin, 2020). 

Closing remarks

Overall, the influence of violence and the power of money laid dark foundations for the chocolate industry, as money rests on the elite’s power to oblige those seen as inferior into debt and subservience. While the encomienda system no longer fuels the chocolate industry, most commercial chocolate consumed by the average person is not produced under fair trade conditions that benefit those performing the labor necessary to craft our favorite treat. That being said, are we that much better relative to today’s expectations ethically than we were during Spanish and European colonialism?


Caso Barrera, L., & Aliphat, M. (2006). Cacao, Vanilla and Annatto: Three Production and Exchange Systems in the Southern Maya Lowlands, XVI-XVII Centuries. Journal of Latin American Geography 5(2), 29-52. doi:10.1353/lag.2006.0015.

Fig 1. Mayan Civilization (unknown). A possible Maya lord sits before an individual with a container of frothed chocolate. [painting] ‎418 × 333 pixels, file size: 40 KB, MIME type: image/jpeg. Retrieved from <>.

Fig 2. Burchell, Simon (2017, Jan 21). Spanish conquest routes in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America during the 16th century. ‎[map] 1,030 × 552 pixels, file size: 361 KB, MIME type: image/png. Own work. Retrieved from <>.

Martin, C. (2020, Feb. 5). Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods” [Lecture]. Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food, Harvard University.

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

Vid. 1. Fairtrade Foundation. (2019, Feb 19). The Story of Chocolate: Unwrapping the Bar [Video File]. Retrieved from <>.

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