All posts by originmatters

Overcoming a History of Human Rights Abuses: Cocoa’s Evolution from Contributing to the Slave Trade to Combatting Child Labor

The well-documented history of cocoa tells the story of an industry driven by greed. However, the picture that is often painted does not speak to how this has evolved.

Dating back as far as 1500 BCE to 400 BCE, the period spanning the Olmec civilization, discoveries and research have firmly validated the significant role that cocoa has long-played in both culture and religion (Coe and Coe, 2013). The same history speaks to a past whereby:

  • origins and producers were exploited by explorers, instigating and contributing to the slave trade for years;
  • industrialized nations seeking to dominate processing and control greater market share, sparked proxy wars with the imposition of tariffs on imports originating from colonies other than their own (present and/or former); and
  • saw industrialized nations assume a patriarchal stance that significantly limited powers and diminished the voice of producing origins (former colonies)—lost ground that would take them years to recapture.
Map of Mesoamerica – Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI)

The following seeks to detail cocoa’s dark past—one whose opacity perpetuated years of human rights abuses including forced and child labor. Having evolved as an industry, the following will also outline industry’s transition into an ever-increasingly transparent and responsible global industry that remains challenged by perceptions based on its past and wrestling to break free from its dark history.

Cocoa’s Sordid Past and Contribution to the Slave Trade

Spanning the Pre-Classic (2000 BCE to 300 CE) to Post Classic (900 to 1500 CE) periods, the number and diversity of explorers ballooned, ultimately leading to a dramatic shift in where and by whom cocoa was produced, as well as who (specifically which nations and companies) would profit from its trade, increasingly efficient processing, and mass manufacturing.

Due largely to voluntary and involuntary migration (i.e., the slave trade) the movement of goods and saw Theobroma cacao cultivation spread from its genetic origins of the Amazon Basin and cultural and religious roots which have been traced back to Mesoamerica (present-day Mexico through Central America) (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Global flow of goods and movement of people during the height of the slave trade.

In what is now present-day Central and South America, during the early 1500s, under the encomienda system, Spanish conquistadors were granted rights to force indigenous inhabitants to perform labor in their favor (Martin, 2019). This led to an irreparable deterioration of culture and loss of land (Martin, 2019). On the other side of the Atlantic, chattel slavery, the practice whereby people are treated as property, between 1500 and 1900, it is estimated that up to 15 million Africans were enslaved, of which 40 out of every 100 died in waiting or during transatlantic transport. In both cases, indigenous peoples were forced to cultivate cocoa while seeing little to no profit in return. In addition, favoritism played into economic positioning among industrialized nations as tariffs and quotas sought to control production and supply with demand (Leissle, 2018).

As cocoa’s production footprint broadened, applications and formulations evolved, popularity within consumer markets increased, and its importance as a traded commodity destined for processing units around the world surged.

As competition grew fiercer, regulation became an ever more critical element to ensure the crop’s viability. But most importantly, it was introduced to ensure economic stability for countries and operators who relied on the trade. This period gave rise to regulatory standards and voluntary certification programs in cocoa—both of which grew more diverse and exacting during the late 1980s present day.

Perhaps the most prolific shift, and marking industry’s acknowledgment that improvements were both possible and needed, with the enactment of the Harkin Engel Protocol in 2001, accountability, and requirements to proactively identify instances, address breakdowns, and prevent arrange of defined human rights abuses took center stage. When introduced, regulatory requirements and elements core to voluntary certification systems fundamentally changed how supply chain operators engaged producers, managed their businesses, interacted with the market, and reported.

During the same period, industry associations were established, and collective efforts launched. Among them were groups such as the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), International Cocoa Initiative (ICI), and the Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group (CLCCG), all groups representing interests at every level from all sides.

In due course, regulations and certifications designed to promote best practices, ensure worker (producer), crop, and environmental protections, combat fraudulent claims, and ensure accurate reporting and labeling (i.e., of provenance, certification claims, production practices, quality, etc.) have improved, expanded, and been welcomed.

Adoption, adaptation, replication, and the proliferation of programs, as well as their capabilities and level of sophistication, continue to evolve rapidly. Not glued simply to factors related to compliance, conformity, or competitiveness, companies are investing significant amounts of resources to align with and exceed regulatory, consumer, and commercial standards and expectations. However, despite advances, and an elongating track record of progress and proactive effort, the industry is often chastised for not doing enough, investing enough, or sharing enough.

Stuck in the Past and Unable to Break the Cycle: The Vilification of the Cocoa Industry

Sampling of Collective Industry Efforts – Programs and Reporting

Seeking to address systemic constraints perpetuating or exacerbating breakdowns, the industry has demonstrated its willingness and ability to come to affect change.

For example, after launching, implementing, and learning from the original and subsequent iterations of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) Cocoa Livelihoods Program (CLP), after several years of complex negotiations (balancing risk, exposure, and financial implications), WCF and its member companies launched, and have developed good traction with Cocoa Action, one of several WCF initiatives designed, developed, and implemented with and through its members.[1] While they admit that it took more time to lay the groundwork that they had initially anticipated, they ultimately emerged with a thoughtful and thorough platform that continues to progress well.[2]

Additionally, since its founding in 2002, the International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) has significantly influenced positive movement on all fronts concerning child labor, including the development of new tools, systems, and metrics to measure progress. This includes the consultative process that led to the development of standards for collective and individual Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation Systems (CLMRS).

Recognizing that they can only harness so much, Industry has teamed with governments, international standard-setting bodies, research institutions, and others to advance efforts to combat forced and child labor, address its root causes, and improve reporting practices to bolster transparency.

Sampling of Individual Company Efforts – Programs and Reporting

Having worked inside and alongside the world’s leading cocoa companies, I recall several meetings where heads of responsible sourcing and on-the-ground activities expressed concern that not enough was being done to address the root causes. Without taking on migration, land, voting, and school registration issues, efforts would continue to face challenges. To do this, the group discussed land ownership and migratory movements of Burkinabe to Côte d’Ivoire, their inability to secure land, and in many cases, to register their children in school. While it was not the first, and certainly not the last, this was a good reminder that addressing the child labor issue was not as clear-cut as many often like to think.

Beyond programs that tighten controls, incentivize parents for producing school registration certificates, third-party certification audits that verify adherence to specific standards and practices, and collective and individual company efforts to refine and expand CLMRS, the industry continues to improve the technical scope of their programs.

The following list provides a snapshot of reports detailing global efforts to address a wide range of unique challenges faced by cocoa farming communities—including child labor. These are offered in response to comments made during the recent film screening and panel discussion “Examining Brazil’s Cocoa-Chocolate Supply Chain.” – May 2019 Discussion

Key takeaways from the May 2019 discussion [and report] aligned with similar panels and studies that point to:

  1. The complexity and scope of the issue;
  2. range and number of actors and implications along the value chain at each stage;
  3. need for leaders, officials, and representatives from all sides (public and private), and on all levels (municipal, regional, national, and international) to work together to develop and enact responses that effectively address root causes; and
  4. calls for greater transparency.

Specific to claims around the lack of transparency and access, deficiencies noted during the discussion included the following:

  1. Visibility into supply chain monitoring plans, geographical scope, findings, and improvements; and
  2. the number, frequency, and quality of public disclosures of internal reports.

In practice, the following are evident:

  1. Companies are proactively and thoughtfully engaged in addressing child and forced labor—not merely in response to regulations or calls from consumers or international bodies;
  2. companies are leading in investments in certification programs, traceability systems, coordinating industry-wide efforts and policy formulation; and
  3. the quality and frequency of reporting are there despite claims that it is absent of lacking.
Excerpt from the Cocoa Life progress report outlining Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

These are vital considerations to bear in mind when looking at the balance of what is being done, by whom, how it financed, and what is being said about those leading the way and reporting on it as appeals for greater transparency play into the vilification of cocoa companies instead of praise for their role in realizing progress.

While there is much more to bring into the frame, the above does tell speak to the other side of the story—one that is rarely shared.

Things have come a long way; however, despite grand efforts to date, many forms of forced and child labor still exist, and the number of instances of human rights violations are still far too prevalent. To that end, much more can and will continue to be done. Going forward, stakeholders must move forward together with the mindful that this is an ever-evolving and continuously improving process in terms of design, implementation, and measurement.

So while independent company activities and collective industry-wide efforts have evolved and improved with learnings over the years, there are programmatic gaps and blind spots that must be proactively and constructively addressed.

Works Cited

Casara, M., Dallabrida, P., Martin, Carla D. “Examining Brazil’s Cocoa-Chocolate Supply Chain”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. April 24, 2019. Film Screening and Discussion.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. March 6, 2019. Lecture.

“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa”. March 22, 2018. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/child-labor-cocoa.

“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa”. March 22, 2018. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs. Accessed April 30, 2019. https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/child-labor-cocoa.

“Cocoa Life 2017 Progress Report”. 2017. Mondelez International. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://www.cocoalife.org/~/media/CocoaLife/en/download/article/Cocoa_Life_Progress_Report_2017.pdf.

“How We Measure Progress”. Mondelez International. Accessed April 28, 2019. https://www.cocoalife.org/impact#.

“Assessment of Forced Labor Risk in the Cocoa Sector of Côte d’Ivoire”. Verité, 2019. Accessed April 23, 2019. https://www.verite.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Verite-Report-Forced-Labor-in-Cocoa-in-CDI.pdf.

“Nestle Cocoa Plan, Tackling Child Labour 2017 Report”. Nestle. 2017. Accessed April 29, 2019. https://www.nestle.com/asset-library/documents/creating-shared-value/responsible-sourcing/nestle-cocoa-plan-child-labour-2017-report.pdf.

Picolotto, A., Giovanaz, D., Casara, J., Loth, Laura W., Lambranho, L., Casara, M., Dallabrida, P., Sabrina, R., and Kruse, T. “Cocoa Supply Chain: Advances ad Challenges Toward the Promotion of Decent Work”. 2019. International Labour Organization (ILO), Public Labour Prosecutor’s Office (MPT), Papel Social. https://cocoainitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Cocoa_EN.pdf.

“2017 Child Labor Cocoa Coordinating Group Annual Report”. United States Department of Labor. 2017. Accessed April 23, 2019. https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ilab/CLCCG2017AnnualReport.pdf.

“Harkin-Engel Protocol”. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of International Labor Affairs. 2001. Accessed April 24, 2019.

https://www.dol.gov/sites/default/files/documents/ilab/Harkin_Engel_Protocol.pdf.

“Examining Brazil’s Cocoa-Chocolate Supply Chain: Film Screening and Discussion, Part 1” [Multimedia Video]. Retrieved from the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute YouTube Channel. April 27, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKr2_0egfzA.

“Examining Brazil’s Cocoa-Chocolate Supply Chain: Film Screening and Discussion, Part 2” [Multimedia Video]. Retrieved from the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute YouTube Channel. April 27, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OKr2_0egfzA.

“Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS) in the Société Coopérative Ivoirienne du Négoce des Produits Agricoles (SCINPA) Cooperative”. Olam International. 2017.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

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


[1] Initiatives, World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/initiatives/

[2] CocoaAction 2017: What We Have Learned, World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), https://www.worldcocoafoundation.org/2017cocoaactiondata/

From Cultural to Commercial: Cocoa’s Geopolitical Transformation

Molded by years of exposure to masterfully crafted marketing campaigns, average consumer knowledge of cacao [or cocoa] is limited to its function as an ingredient and source from which their beloved chocolate is derived. There is much more to the birth, rise, and spread of Theobroma cacao.

The following seeks to explain how a culturally significant crop among early civilizations dating back to 1500 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013) transformed from a highly treasured ingredient and social currency cultivated within a fairly limited zone to a globally produced and traded commodity: a highly reformulated, mass-produced, and readily available confectionery product.

This journey traces cacao back to its genetic and cultural beginnings where it was religious and cultural fixture among early civilizations; how exploration and migration played into the geographical expansion of its cultivation and rise in popularity as a food; role in accelerating industrialization; and transformation from a social currency and treasured ingredient to a heavily traded commodity and mass manufactured consumer product.

Genetic and Cultural Beginnings

From births and burials, recipes and rituals, cacao’s cultural origins are linked to Mesoamerica (present day Mexico through Central America), where its social and religious significance among the Olmec dates back to 1500 to 400 BCE (Coe and Coe, 2013). The rise of Maya and Aztec civilizations gave way for cacao’s evolution utility and proliferation as a consumable.

Cacao’s Role in Society and Religion

Evidenced by archeologic discoveries, translated texts, and scientific testing, several vessels and writings have been unearthed, clarifying and validating cacao’s significance, religious ties, and early application as a currency.

Mayan and Aztec civilization associated cacao with the gods. As such, they were believed to enrich and afford protections during and after life, playing a central role in offerings and rituals (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Ceramic vessels similar to those pictured here which date back to 455 to 465 CE were found in burial tombs at Río Azul (Martin, 2019). Further testing confirmed positive traces of caffeine and theobromine—two of cacao’s alkaloid signatures (Martin, 2019).

Dating back to 455 to 465 CE, “funerary vessels” similar to those pictured here were discovered in tombs at Río Azul. As testing revealed traces of caffeine and theobromine, two of cacao’s signature alkaloids, this further supported evidence of cacao’s religious significance (Martin, 2019).

As a food or drink, cacao took many forms. Popular among the Maya and Aztec, “cacahuatl” was a frothy preparation often transferred from one vessel to another and served cold (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Described by Coe and Coe in The True History of Chocolate and drawn by Diane Griffiths Peck, this illustration provides a glimpse into one of many Maya and Aztec cacao preparation and serving methods.
Of the 15 discovered, translated, and still intact, the Dresden Codex contains the aforementioned Mayan hieroglyphic depiction of cacao being consumed by gods and used in rituals (Martin, 2019). Other major works include the Popol Vuh or “Book of Counsel” is a colonial document later translated by Friar Francisco Ximénez that reveals the importance of cacao among early civilizations.

Exploration and Migration: Changes in Cultivation and Consumption

By definition, explorers were bound to make new discoveries and learn from their experience. Capturing the innocent confusion and eye-opening experience (only to be realized years later), the following briefly details just how one explorer mistakenly thought that cacao beans were almonds.”

Mistaken for Almonds: When recounting observations from his 1502 landing at Guanaja, one of many landmasses that make up the Bay Islands archipelago, Ferdinand Columbus, one of Christopher Columbus’ sons wrote about cherished “almonds” that traded hands similarly to how currency would pass between customers and merchants (Coe and Coe, 2013). It was not until years later after multiple interpretations and sources concluded that what he presumed to be almonds were in fact cacao beans.

As it came to be more widely known, not far from where Ferdidnad landed, throughout the Rio Ceniza Valley (present day coast of El Salvador), cacao was an increasingly popular form of currency being produced and traded in record volume—something . In time, this led to further learnings about the “Nahua counting system” and subsequent adoption of cacao as payment for “protection” by Spanish conquistadors.

Generally relegated to tropical climates falling 10-15 degrees north and south of equator, is was inevitable that cacao would make its way around the world. So as people moved, and culture spread, so too did the cacao, as a crop, currency, and curiosity, ultimately leading to its introduction to new geographies, and paving the way for new industries and traditions around the world (Martin, 2019).

New Formulations and Complementary Ingredients

As ingredients such as vanilla, chili, and many others traveled around the world, pairings and formulations rapidly evolved. Marking a major development and informing direction for the confectionery side as we know it today, sugar was introduced to Europe around 1100 CE and chocolate followed shortly thereafter in 1500 CE (Martin, 2019).

Cacao’s Role in Accelerating Industrialization and Expanding its Place in Society

While cacao consumption continued to be reserved for certain classes during its journey around the world, increasingly sophisticated processing methods streamlined productions, regulation eventually brought its price down, and despite medical and religious challenges to its place in society, cacao products were increasingly available to a grander population.

By the 1600 and 1700s, advances in processing continued to align with rising and more diverse consumption habits. Of course, by this time, the separation between “producing” and “processing” countries (read: colonies vs. industrialized nations) was increasingly clear.

So while cultivation and production spread across Central and South America, Southeast Asia, and Africa to meet demand, industry began to take shape on the consumer side as well with the emergence of social gathering halls or “Chocolate Houses” in Britain, France, Spain, the United States, and other “industrialized” nations who had transitioned to managing the cacao’s trade as a commodity and processing for various food and beverage applications. It was not until Rudolphe Lindt’s invention of the conche in 1879, an advancement that bolstered flavor and feel (among other things), and set the stage for quality, processing, and mass production to take off (Coe and Coe, 2013).

Illustrated above, the matete, grinder, and conche are examples of what cacao processing tools were used by early civilizations (and are still used in the same or similar forms today) and evolved or industrialized processing equipment employed today (Martin, 2019).

From early civilizations to present day, cacao’s role in society, cultural significance, availability and consumption have evolved tremendously. However, its mystique and association as something special are still true to this day—just as they were in different and more elaborate forms among early civilizations. Perhaps this condensed history will give pause and reason for the average consumer to think beyond commercialization of cacao, cocoa, or chocolate, and value and validate its history and claims made by brands to improve global understanding, perception, and consumer habits.

Works Cited

  • Coe, Sophie D., and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. 3rd Edition, Thames & Hudson, 2013.
  • Martin, Carla D., and Kathryn E. Sampeck. “The Bitter and Sweet of Chocolate in Europe.” Socio.Hu, Vol. 3, 2015, pp. 37–60.
  • Mintz, Sidney. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. Penguin Books, 1986.
  • Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018

Media Cited

  • Hansen, Magnus Pharao. “Cacao: How a Single Word Holds the Key to Understanding the Mesoamerican Past”. Nawatl Scholar. January 1, 1970. Accessed March 15, 2019. http://nahuatlstudies.blogspot.com/2015/01/cacao-how-contested-history-of-single.html?spref=tw.
  • Olver, Lynne. “Food Timeline FAQs: Aztec, Maya, & Inca foods and recipes”. Lynne Olver 2000. March 1, 2015. Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodmaya.html.
  • Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies. “Map of Mesoamerica.” Accessed February 17, 2019. http://www.famsi.org/maps/.
  • Río Azul [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Wikimedia Commons. File:Popol vuh.jpg. (January 16, 2015). Retrieved February 17, 2019. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?title=File:Popol_vuh.jpg&oldid=146695431.
  • Matete [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Grinder [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.
  • Conche [Electronic Image]. Retrieved from Lecture. Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.

Lectures Cited

  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Expansion”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 13, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Sugar and Cacao”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. February 20, 2019. Lecture.
  • Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate Politics: How History, Multinational Corporations, Governments, NGOs, and Critics Influence the Chocolate We Eat”. Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. January 30, 2019. Lecture.