The creamy, luxuriant, dark brown sweet of pure bliss – chocolate is the enticing candy with an irresistible taste of heaven and the Gods. Yet, little do we know, chocolate has had its tie to Gods since its origins in the New World. The story began in Mesoamerica where the cacao tree, termed Theobroma cocoa or “the food of the Gods”, flourished among the Mayan and Aztec civilizations way before the arrival of European colonizers (Coe and Coe, 1996). The cocoa beans were adopted in every aspect of life – beyond food, they were medicine; an offering in religious, marriage, and burial rituals; and money. The social, religious, and economic significance of cocoa was markedly noted by European ethnographers like Bernardino de Sahagun, and with the arrival of Columbus along with other colonizers, cocoa was brought to Europe. Using sugar, Europe transformed cocoa into chocolate, as the delicacy we know today, which quickly became a widely desired, palatable treat for the rich and poor alike. Not long after, chocolate was mass produced by chocolate manufacturers, and consequently, the chocolate empire took root.
Underneath the Veil
Hidden beneath the veil of sweetness, however, the history of chocolate reveals a much more bitter reality weaved with violence. To satisfy the insatiable demand in the chocolate market, chocolate manufacturers turned to an incredibly exploitative system of obtaining their raw ingredient, cocoa. Chocolate, like many other imperial commodities, was the refined product of slavery and forced labor on plantation farms, and the consequences of this system can be felt up to today in the global racial, economic, and social landscapes.
The Atlantic Slave Trade
What fed into the imperial market and its strong economic interests was none other than the trans-Atlantic slave trade that uprooted millions of African people to the Americas, the Caribbean, and Europe [figure 1]. An internal system of slavery persisted in Central and West Africa before the European exploitation, and this indigenous slavery provided fuel for the rise of this global slave trade (Rodney, 1966). The local slave trade was initially recorded and taken of interest by Portuguese chroniclers, who, in the 16th century, were the first to engage in the trade trans-Atlantic (Rodney, 1966). Other Europeans soon followed, and the slave trade bloomed into what supported colossal economies of commodities like sugar, coffee, tobacco, cotton, and of course, cocoa. By the 19th century, various countries passed laws to ban the importation of slaves, including Britain, the United States, Spain, France and Portugal, but at that point, demands soared, and cocoa’s market had become wholly dependent on the slave trade for mass production. Here, we saw a surge of illegal slave trading under the pretense of contract labor.
The Chocolate Islands – Cadbury’s Cocoa Scandal:
The persistence of slave labor despite efforts to end it unfolded in the Cadbury cocoa scandal of the 1900s. Cadbury Bros, the British Quaker-owned chocolate company, dominated the market at the time and came under criticism when despite warnings of labor conditions and potential use of slaves, they continued to purchase cocoa produced by the plantations of the island of Sao Tome, a Portuguese colony (Satre, 2005). Notably, Henry W. Nevinson, a journalist who documented his encounters with slavery in Portuguese West Africa in his later published book, “A Modern Slavery” [figure 2], marked that the dynamics of the labor market were as reported – laws passed to ban slavery were worthless, commercial interests begged to be satisfied, and by signing a paper, the slave was a “free” worker and everyone was happy. His report brought into light injustices against native Africans disguised in the legal pretense of contract labor. Disregarding Nevinson and other accounts of anti-slavery campaigners, Cadbury chose to make their own investigations into labor conditions of Sao Tome. Yet, even when these confirmed conditions on par with slavery on the cocoa plantations, Cadbury continued to be a major consumer of the cocoa product from Sao Tome, simply choosing to lobby the Portuguese government to more strictly implement their labor contract laws (Satre, 2005). While Cadbury did make some effort against the use of slavery, they undoubtedly fell short of their Quaker moral and ethical principles of justice and fair trade. The key issue in the persistence of slavery is highlighted here – commercial interests for profit constrain moral action from truly taking root.
Modern Slavery, Child Laborers, Implications
This also comes to explain the reality we see today in “modern slavery”. At the turn of the 21st century, widespread media reports uncovered child slavery on cocoa plantations in Cote d’ Ivoire, one of the major exporters of cocoa to the world market (Manzo, 2005). An estimated 15,000 children workers were found to be working as slaves on the 600,000 cocoa farms in Cote d’ Ivoire and were subjected to inhumane conditions and extreme abuse (Chanthavong, 2002). The existence of a form of labor practically parallel to old slavery in modern times implicates many contributors in play, intentional and non-intentional. Whether it be the cocoa farmers, the slave traffickers, the Ivorian government, the chocolate manufacturers, or us the consumers who buy chocolate at a supermarket, all are relevant to the existence of slave labor and the sufferings it incites. Perhaps the wake of a ravenous market like cocoa and chocolate inevitably demands cheap labor that spirals into exploitative systems of forced labor driven by greed and convenience, but we all have the responsibility to challenge the inevitable. We can begin to ask the next time we stand in the sweets aisle for a Hershey bar, are we playing into the cycle of perpetuating labor abuses? What can we do in our power to mitigate these abuses?
Chanthavong, Samlanchith (2002). Chocolate and Slavery: Child Labor in Cote d’Ivoire. TED Case Studies, Number 664.
COE, SOPHIE DOBZHANSKY (1933-1995)|COE, MICHAEL D. (b. 1929). (1996). The True History Of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.
Manzo, K. (2005). Modern slavery, global capitalism & deproletarianisation in West Africa. Review of African Political Economy, 32(106), 521–534. doi: 10.1080/03056240500467013
Rodney, W. (1966). African Slavery and other Forms of Social Oppression on the Upper Guinea Coast in the Context of the Atlantic Slave-Trade. The Journal of African History, 7(3), 431–443. doi: 10.1017/s0021853700006514
Satre, L. J. (2006). Chocolate on trial: slavery, politics, and the ethics of business. Athens, OH: Ohio Univ. Press.
Cocoa played a role in Mayan mythology, and certainly this religious role helps explain why Cocoa was involved in Mayan death rituals (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). However, this does not entirely account for the plant’s seemingly outsized inclusion in funeral rites. Rather, a historical review of mayan society and spiritual beliefs reveals that cocoa’s myriad functional uses in Mayan society as a currency, status symbol, comestible, and energizer uniquely positioned it to serve as a provision and aid for the soul’s journey into and existence in the afterlife (Coe, 1996; Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017).
A long record of cocoa and death
In Europe and America Chocolate is often associated with vitality. It’s seen as an energizer, as an aphrodisiac, as a symbol of indulgence (Coe, 1996). However, today, chocolate can also often be found in rituals surrounding death. For example, chocolate decorations, treats, and beverages are ubiquitous in Dia de los Muertos (Brandes, 1998). And this involvement of cocoa in rituals of death is by no means new.
Thanks to chemical tracing of cocoa compounds such as theobromine and translations of hieroglyphics for words related to coca on burial vessels such as the one pictured above, scientists have been able to establish that cocoa has been used in Mayan burials, funerals, and memorials for well over a thousand years (Hall, Tarka, Hurst, Stuart, & Adams, 1990).
Mayan spiritual beliefs
This long standing tradition begs what may seem like an obvious question: why would Mayans choose to use cocoa in particular in rituals of death? The answer to this question requires an understanding of Mayan beliefs surrounding the fate and journey of the soul after death. Records make it clear that their society considered provisioning the dead to be important, and that doing so served a number of purposes. Provisions sustained the dead in the afterlife, serving as a commestible (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). They also served as symbols of status and wealth for the deceased (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Finally, some provisions served as currency that allowed souls to pay off various spirits that might hinder them on their long journey from the body to the other side (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Recognizing this might help illuminate why cocoa, which served so many roles in Mayan society, would be a critical such provision.
Cocoa as sustenance
Cocoa was both treasured and ubiquitous in mayan society as a comestible. As evidence of this, archaeological findings show that Mayan nobles throughout their history had different names for different cocoa preparations, and it appeared as an ingredient in an enormous variety of drinks and foods (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017). Moreover, cocoa consumption was seen as a rich sensory experience that was refreshing, invigorating, and highly adaptable to the needs of different moments and locations (Schwartzkopf & Sampeck, 2017).
In short, cocoa was a highly prized comestible, the consumption of which was celebrated in mayan society. Therefore, when seeking to provision the dead with a source of food, selecting an ingredient that is highly valued across time and region for its rich flavor, myriad uses, and energizing effects would make sense.
Cocoa as luxury possession
Numerous accounts of Mayan society as well as archaeological findings indicate that Cocoa was treasured as a luxury good and an indicator of power, wealth, and social standing (Coe, 1996). Indeed, Mayan records indicate that in some cases Cocoa beans were treated as a non-tradeable, non-comestible, and even non-heritable good (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). In such cases its role was clearly to serve as a possession rather than a food or even a currency (Prufer & Hurst, 2007).
In addition, cocoa was not just treated as a trivial possession, but rather as a signifier of nobility. For example, in the image above, a Mayan king’s mother emerges as a cocoa tree in order to signify the veracity of his royal lineage and therefore support his claim to power (Martin, 2020).
Therefore, as a status symbol and one that in some cases could not be passed on to heirs, cocoa was a perfect choice when selecting what possessions would accompany and assert the standing of a soul in the afterlife.
Cocoa as currency
Cocoa beans were also used as a currency in Mayan society (Coe, 1996). These beans weren’t simply used as a comestible to barter for other goods, but rather were circulated in society as a form of money with an agreed upon value that would give the holder a set purchasing power (Coe, 1996). Once again, Mayans believed that along the passage to the afterlife the soul would encounter certain spirits that would try to hinder the journey, and would require payment to let the soul continue on unmolested (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). So, it only makes sense that Mayans would bury their dead with money – money which came in the form of cocoa beans.
Cocoa as stimulant
Finally, Cocoa was also seen as a stimulant, likely due to the effects of caffeine (Coe, 1996). Indeed, it was even used by Mayan athletes. The image below illustrates a participant in a ceremonial Mayan sport wearing cocoa beans in order to heighten his abilities and improve his performance (Martin, 2020).
Given Mayan faith in the invigorating effects of cocoa, Prufer and Hurst argue that it only makes sense that cocoa would accompany the dead and even be consumed during the funeral ritual (Prufer & Hurst, 2007). Both, they say would help energize the soul for the difficult journey to the afterlife (Prufer & Hurst, 2007).
In summation, cocoa was used and prized in Mayan society for a variety of reasons. Given these important and myriad functional uses for cocoa, as well as Mayan beliefs surrounding the afterlife, it makes sense that the Mayans would include the bean extensively in their funeral rituals.
Brandes, S. (1998). Iconography in Mexico’s Day of the dead: Origins and meanings. Ethnohistory, 45(2), 181-218.
Coe, S. (1996). The True History of Chocolate
Hall, G., Tarka, S., Hurst, W., Stuart, D., & Adams, R. (1990). Cacao Residues in Ancient Maya Vessels from Rio Azul, Guatemala. American Antiquity, 55(1), 138-143.
Martin, C. (2020). Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food Lecture 2: Mesoamerica and the “food of the gods”. Cambridge, MA.
Prufer, Keith M., & Hurst, W. Jeffrey. (2007). Chocolate in the Underworld Space of Death: Cacao Seeds from an Early Classic Mortuary Cave. Ethnohistory, 54(2), 273-301.
Schwartzkopf, S., & Sampeck, K. (2017). Substance and seduction : Ingested commodities in early modern Mesoamerica (First ed.). Austin: University of Texas Press.
Chocolate, the bittersweet delicious treat that most everyone in the western world grew up eating, has taken on various different roles in society throughout its surprisingly significant lifespan. From 1900 BC to our modern day existence, chocolate has been everything from a form of sustenance, to a currency, to a ritualistic decoration, and now a sugary treat that we give to children and loved ones. Of particular interest and significance, though, is the period from 1600-1800, when European consumption preferences caused chocolate to go from an exotic snack to a full fledged industrialized foodstuff that powered economies and increased the slave trade. That period marks a permanent change in the history of chocolate, one best described as a case study in rising capitalism meeting changing consumer preferences to create an entirely new industry.
The earliest evidence of the existence of chocolate is found in research of the Olmec Civilization (Dakin and Wichmann, 2000:66). The Olmec Civilization flourished in Mesoamerica prior to the Maya or Aztec civilizations arising, and like their predecessors the Olmec used chocolate for both consumption and in ritual (Dakin and Wichmann, 2000:66). For centuries, chocolate, and the cacao from which it is made, was consumed in relatively small portions. No plantations existed for the sole purpose of farming cacao, nor did it ever occur to create one. Sophie and Michael Coe, authors of The True History of Chocolate, detailed how the Aztecs “considered chocolate a far more desirable beverage [than octli their native drink], especially for warriors and nobility” (Coe and Coe, 2013:154). Today we romanticize the Aztec chocolate habits with false pictures and recipes like the one displayed here. The Aztecs, who ruled proudly until 1521 when they were all but wiped out, were one of the civilizations to introduce chocolate to Europeans.
Europeans, specifically the Spanish, encountered chocolate for the first time in 1502 when Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ what would become a continental obsession (Coe and Coe, 2013:217). It wasn’t until 1544, though, when “Dominican friars took a delegation of Maya nobles to visit Prince Phillip in Spain” that chocolate truly entered the European consciousness (Coe and Coe, 2013:262). By the early 1600s Spaniards had begun manufacturing chocolate for public consumption. By the mid 1600s, recipes including cinnamon and sugar had popped up (Coe and Coe, 2013:269). By the 1800s chocolate was a full-blown obsession. Chocolate was becoming more and more popular in Europe, and in order to keep up with demand Europeans began doing to chocolate what they did to so many other things during the same time period: industrialized.
In 1828 Coenraad Johannes Van Houten developed a hydraulic press capable of industrializing the labor intensive and inefficient process of separating chocolate liquor into cocoa butter and cocoa powder. He also added salts to the cocoa around the same time period, darkening the colour and changing the flavor of the end product (Coe and Coe, 2013:483-484). This invention marked a change in the production of chocolate that would never go back to the largely small scale, artisanal industry it was before. The inventions, combined with a Pennsylvanian named Joseph Fry’s use of a steam engine to grind cacao beans, allowed chocolate production to become much easier, faster, and more efficient (Coe and Coe, 2013:485-486). Here is a picture of Van Houten’s original hydraulic press used for chocolate.
Another factor that contributed to the boom in chocolate production was the increased demand from working class Europeans. During the 19th century the industrial revolution was in full swing all across Europe. While that meant great progress, both socially and economically, it also brought about many issues including large-scale poverty. With the new ability to mass-manufacture chocolate prices came down dramatically. Chocolate was no longer a food for only the select elite to enjoy. On the meager wages of a factory worker one could enjoy a uniformly produced, sweet chocolate bar. Industrial workers caused a massive boost in popularity of chocolate in the mid-to-late 19th century (Poelmans and Swinnen, 2019:13). Chocolate was fueling the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution was in turn fueling chocolate in a period of absolutely enormous growth. Between 1870 and 1940 production of chocolate and imports for cacao beans in Europe and North America grew by over 90x (Poelmans and Swinnen, 2019:13). It is truly one of the most stunning and lucrative periods of growth in economic history.
The explosion of chocolate production caused a dip in ‘quality.’ No longer was chocolate a frothy beverage used for energy. Instead, chocolate was barely even cacao anymore, diluted as it was with alkalized salts, sugars, spices, and other ingredients to create a sweet treat suitable for all members of society. Millions of people consumed chocolate annually, but now primarily from larger companies that had cropped up like Hershey’s, Cadbury, and Nestlé and not smaller chocolate makers. By the middle of the 20th century the chocolate revolution was complete. The product was now unrecognizable from where it started in Mesoamerica, and so too was the world.
Today we rarely remember or know much about the original recipes and consumption habits surrounding chocolate. All we know is the sugary, delicious but bastardized version of the snack that surrounds us in every grocery store and local corner deli. This change was caused for both social consumption preferences, as well as underlying economic tailwinds. Today, the chocolate industry is strong as ever and shows no signs of slowing down, continuing to perpetuate the European recipes which have taken over the world.
Dakin, Karen and Soren Wichmann. 2000. Cacao and Chocolate: An Uto-Aztecan Perspective. Ancient Mesoamerica vol. 11. Cambridge University Press.
Coe, Sophie and Michael Coe. 2013. The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson. London, UK.
Poelmans, Eline and Johan F. M. Swinnen. 2019. A Brief Economic History of Chocolate. LICOS Centre for Institutions and Economic Performance. Mannheim, Ger.
Slave labor fueled the sugar industry ‒ and, later, the cocoa industry ‒ in Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic for centuries. Though slavery was officially abolished in Portugal’s colonies in the 1870s, it was quickly replaced with forced labor that left indentured São Toméans toiling on sugar plantations for little or no pay up until the early twentieth century. Slavery and forced labor played huge roles in the history of the chocolate industry, and their historical ties to Portuguese sugar cane and cocoa exports cannot be ignored.
Early Sugar Production in the Atlantic Colonies
Sugar consumption in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was starkly different than it is today. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, sugar was still largely only accessible to the wealthy, and was most commonly used as a spice or medicine.2
While sugar was still nowhere near being the commodity it is today, its production proved to be strategic for other reasons. The Portuguese realized that securing colonial territories in the Atlantic could be useful to the end of monopolizing essential trade routes, and so soon began establishing sugar cane plantations along their Atlantic island territories in order to safeguard these trade routes.3 Sugar plantations, or roças, were established on the islands of the Azores, Madeira, Cape Verde, and São Tomé and Príncipe, and later in the continental African colonies of Angola and Mozambique.
[Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic] were situated in strategic locations with respect to wind systems and ocean currents. Portugal’s control of the sea lanes in the Atlantic ‒ and later to Asia ‒ were to depend on her ability to secure the islands as bases.
Sidney M. Greenfield4
In Angola and Mozambique, these sugar cane plantations were powered by the unpaid labor of enslaved natives. Portugal’s island colonies in the Atlantic had no native populations, however, and so the Portuguese imported enslaved people from its colonies on the African continent to toil on the island plantations in place of Portuguese settlers.5
The value of sugar skyrocketed over the next several hundred years, surpassing that of even tobacco.6 By 1900, sugar represented approximately “one-sixth of per-capita caloric intake” among Europeans.7 Sugar plantations became a vital part of the world economy as the global demand for sugar increased, and the Portuguese were willing to go to great lengths to protect the incredible wealth they had created in the Atlantic on the backs of slaves.
Cocoa Plantations and Forced Labor in São Tomé and Príncipe
Portugal abolished slavery in 1761, but ruled that this abolition should not be extended to its colonies abroad. The decision to end slavery in the colonies did not come until 1869, and was not actually implemented until the mid-1870s.9 The economies of the Portuguese colonies had been built entirely upon the unpaid labor of abducted African people; as such, the Portuguese government soon began looking for ways to lessen the economic blow that abolishing slavery in its colonies would undoubtedly cause. Eventually a new labor system was implemented in the colonies wherein former slaves could “sign contracts committing themselves to five years of labor at a set wage.”10
In reality, these so-called contracts were either coerced, forged, or simply never existed in the first place. These serviçais, as they were called ‒ the Portuguese word for servants ‒ were slaves whose lives, labor, and freedom were being stolen for the profit of the Portuguese empire.
As the global demand for chocolate began to increase around the mid-1800s alongside the global demand for sugar, some of Portugal’s Atlantic colonies began producing cocoa on plantations nearly identical to the sugar cane roças. The islands of São Tomé and Príncipe soon became hubs of cheap, large-scale cocoa production powered by the new serviçal labor system.
The Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies, both located in England, were two of several buyers of cocoa from the roças of São Tomé and Príncipe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. English journalist Henry Nevinson published an exposé of the abhorrent labor conditions of serviçais in Portuguese colonial Africa in his 1906 novel A Modern Slavery, but neither Cadbury nor Fry made an effort to source their cocoa elsewhere once these revelations came to light. Instead, unconvinced ‒ or perhaps willfully ignorant ‒ William Cadbury sent Joseph Burtt to investigate labor conditions in São Tomé and Príncipe for himself in 1907.11
When Burtt’s report confirmed Nevinson’s findings, it was not well received. The British secretary of state urged Burtt to edit his report to be less damning of the Portuguese government, essentially watering down the atrocity of what was actually happening overseas in the name of diplomacy while simultaneously delaying the publication of the report.12 Nevinson saw Burtt’s report as a weak summary of his own work, and published articles in several newspapers advocating for the boycott of Cadbury and Fry chocolate companies until their cocoa was no longer associated with São Toméan slave labor.13 While said boycott never actually took place, the scandal was enough to push Cadbury and Fry to officially stop buying São Toméan cocoa in March of 1909.14
Modern Cocoa Production in Post-Colonial Africa
Following the Cadbury slave labor scandal, cocoa production in São Tomé and Príncipe began to dwindle. The chocolate companies that had once been loyal customers of São Toméan cocoa began sourcing their cocoa from countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire instead. By the time São Tomé became independent in 1975, the cocoa industry there had fallen “into neglect,”15 and nearly one-quarter of all cocoa farmers in São Tomé were living below the poverty line.16
It wasn’t until 2009, when the United Nations’ International Fund for Agriculture began “working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cocoa beans using a co-operative model,”17 that prospects for the cocoa industry in São Tomé and Príncipe slowly began to improve. Fair trade farmer’s co-operatives ensure that São Toméan cocoa farmers are finally appropriately compensated for their labor after centuries of being forced to provide this labor for free.
Although millions of people around the world enjoy chocolate today, our modern conceptions of chocolate products greatly deviate from the first chocolate recipes. From the way we primarily consume chocolate today (eaten rather than drunk) to the flavors and ingredients we mix in (sugar and milk instead of maize, chillies, and flower-products), our “chocolate” would be hardly recognizable to the original chocolate makers of Mesoamerica (“History of Chocolate”, 2017).
To understand the first chocolate recipes of Mesoamerica, we first have to understand how cacao, the main ingredient in chocolate, was extracted from the Theobroma cacao tree. Theobroma cacao genetically originated in the Amazon basin of South America, but was later domesticated by the Olmec in the humid lowlands of Mexican Gulf Coast around 1000 BC (Young, 2007). The images below (a-e) depict the end products of each step in the process of producing cacao nibs (kernels). In the first step, cacao pods are cracked open, revealing the white pulp and pulp-covered cacao seeds, as pictured in image a. Although the pulp is edible, it’s the seeds at the fruit’s core that are essential for chocolate production. The next step of the process is fermenting the seeds for about 5 days, as shown in image b, which lowers the astringency of the beans. The fermented beans are then dried for about one to two weeks. As shown in image c, the beans are dried in the sun which soaks up excess moisture leading to a loss of about ½ the beans’ original weight (Coe and Coe, 2019).
After drying, the beans are roasted, as shown in the above image d. This is a crucial step as it reduces microbiological contaminants, further reduces acidity, introduces various flavors, and loosens shells for the subsequent step- winnowing (the deshelling of the roasted bean). The resulting product is called a cacao nib, which is then grounded to make a chocolate paste or liquor on a metate, as shown in image e. The metate, a curved stone surface on which people from Olmec to Aztec civilizations ground grains like cacao and maize, was a crucial Mesoamerican tool, still being used by some chocolate makers today (Coe and Coe, 2019).
Olmec (~1500 BC – 400 BC)
Although we have few deciphered Olmec writings, recent linguistic research linking the Olmec language to the more understood Mixe-Zoquean family of languages, have allowed us to better comprehend Olmec culture, including food. One of the important precursors to chocolate production was the discovery of maize nixtamalization by the Olmec. Before nixtamalization, it took a lot of time and energy to soften grains of maize for consumption. However, through nixtamalization, the maize grains were softened in bulk. They were cooked with lime or ash and left overnight, after which they could be easily grinded into powder on a metate, resulting in a smooth dough (nixtamalli) as shown in the image below. Nixtamalli was crucial to the rise of chocolate making for two reasons. First, the amino-acid enhancing properties of the process dramatically increased the nutritional value of maize, thereby creating the “jolt necessary to put Mesoamericans on the road to civilization, and therefore the leisure in which to enjoy luxuries like chocolate” (Coe and Coe, 2019). The second reason was nixtamalli mixed in water with the chocolate paste was one of the foundational recipes that persisted in the chocolate production of the Maya and Aztec as saca.
Maya (1800 BC- 1600 AD)
The Maya flourished between 250 and 900 AD (Classical period) in Northern Guatemala/ Yucatan Peninsula of southern Mexico. For the Maya, chocolate held deep religious, societal, and economic significance, thus, it’s no surprise that chocolate production and usage was well documented in various Mayan codices and vase engravings. The usage of chocolate recipes in Maya civilization is highlighted through various ceremonies like religious sacrifices to the gods as recorded in the Madrid Codex and marital ceremonies in which a bride would have to make a cacao drink and prove she could make it with the proper froth- one of the most significant Mayan chocolate innovations (Garthwaite, 2015). Froth was the foamy superficial layer of cacao drinks, produced by repeatedly pouring a cacao drink from vessel-to-vessel. As depicted above in the engraving on the Princeton Vase of the late-Classical Mayan period (750 AD), the Mayan women would pour the cacao drink from a vessel at an elevated height to a vessel on the ground (Coe and Coe, 2019). The rush of cacao liquid from the elevated vessel into the grounded one disturbed the surface of the grounded cacao drink thereby creating the froth or yom cacao (chocolate foam). The importance of froth in Mesoamerican cacao drinks is highlighted in Meredith Dreiss’ book, Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods, where she writes that “chocolate is for the body, but the foam is for the soul” (Dreiss and Greenhill, 2008).
Like the Olmec, the Maya chocolate recipes were prepared for drinking. Classical Mayan cocoa drinks were often hot and consisted of gruels, drinks of mixed grains in water. This gruel had the maize and cocoa grain foundation possible after the Olmec nixtamalization, but also included ground chillies and other spices- a drink modernly called pinole. Because the Mayan empire expanded over nearly 40 cities across the Yucatan Peninsula, recipes varied from region to region as cacao pods and spices grown in each region differed. These variations are highlighted by franciscan friar Bernardino de Sahagun in the 1577 Florentine Codex (Schwartzkopf and Sampeck, 2017):
“And in finishing eating, next was set out many kinds of cacao, made very delicately, like these:
Xoxouhqui cacaocintli [blue-green cacao pod], cacao made with the tender cacao pod, and is very tasty to drink.
Quauhnecvio [mature/great honey] cacao, cacao made with honey from bees.
Xochio [flower] cacao, cacao made with vej nacaztli [aromatic herbs].
The Mayans used dozens of flavorings, from chillies to vanilla, but the most elaborate cacao recipes were produced by the Aztec people that rose to prominence during the decline or Post-Classical Mayan period.
Aztec: 1300-1521 AD
In the Aztec civilization of central Mexico, chocolate was reserved for only the royal household, the elite, and sometimes warriors. Cocoa drinks were primarily served cold and were very calorically dense. The Aztec had different rankings for quality of cacao drinks, and considered delicately produced cacao drinks that were “unadulterated” by any other spice or ingredient, tlaquetzalli (“precious thing”), which were served only to the lords. Like the Maya before them, the Aztec maintained a deep appreciation for froth and continued making gruels of cacao and maize, which were believed to make them invincible warriors (Coe and Coe, 2019).
Flavorings in Aztec cacao drinks often consisted of grounded chilli powder ranging from mild to extremely spicy. Reports by Sahagun on Aztec cacao recipes reveal many variations of chocolate like “honeyed chocolate, flowered chocolate, flavored with green vanilla, bright red chocolate, huitztecolli-flower chocolate, flower-colored chocolate, black chocolate, and white chocolate.” Another Spaniard that documented Aztec cacao recipes was Fracisco Hernandez, the royal physician and naturalist to Phillip II of Spain. From Hernandez’s documentation of cacao recipes during his 1570 trip to the New World, we also learn that three flavorings were highly prized by the Aztec- hueinacaztli (a thick, ear-shaped petal of the Cymbopetalum penduliflorum flower), vanilla, and mecaxochitl (“string flower”; related to back pepper). Although there are a multitude of other flavorings, from sapote seeds to “popcorn flower”, that the Aztecs used to diversify their cacao recipes, the chocolate products they made are far from the sweetened versions of chocolate we are accustomed to (Coe and Coe, 2019).
Examining how chocolate was first produced in the Olmec, Maya and Aztec civilizations, allows us to realize that chocolate recipes in Mesoamerica were an evolving art influenced by various cultures and societies, but distinctly different from what we now know as chocolate. Furthermore, the incredibly diverse Mesoamerican chocolate recipes challenge us to expand our understanding of chocolate beyond the sugary versions marketed to us today.
Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2019). The Tree of the Food of the Gods. In The True History of Chocolate. London: Thames and Hudson.
Dreiss, M. L., & Greenhill, S. (2008). Serve Up the Chocolate: Drinks, Vessels, and Glyphs. In Chocolate: Pathway to the Gods. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press.
Schwartzkopf, S., & Sampeck, K. E. (2017). Translating Tastes: A Cartography of Chocolate Colonialism. In Substance and Seduction. Ingested Commodities in Early Modern Mesoamerica. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Young, A. M. (2007). Out of the Rain Forest: The Journey of Chocolate Begins. In The chocolate tree: a natural history of cacao. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida.
It’s no secret that a lot of us love chocolate, but what has always been a source of pleasure for us remains a source of pain for millions of others. When we say that chocolate is our guilty pleasure, we think of how it tastes great but is loaded with sugar and fat. However, one source of guilt that we often fail to acknowledge when consuming chocolate is the human cost hidden behind its production. From the indigenous people of Mesoamerica to the current children working in cocoa farms in West Africa, millions of men, women, and children have been exploited in the production of cocoa over the span of several hundred years. Despite countless efforts to reform labor practices in cocoa production, we continue to see issues like the child labor epidemic in West Africa. Moreover, while efforts to reduce exploitative labor practices in the chocolate industry continue, the future looks grim. With a history of cocoa and chocolate producers valuing profits over people, producers are likely to only continue looking for ways to cheapen the cost of their labor.
When the Spanish first arrived in Mesoamerica, the origin of cacao and chocolate, it took very little time for them to grasp the importance of chocolate and begin to exploit the indigenous people of the land they had invaded (Coe and Coe 110). While chocolate was initially of interest to the Spanish due to the economic importance of cacao beans in the native economy, the Spanish slowly acquired a taste for chocolate and began to export it to Europe (Coe and Coe 125). Soon after the Conquest, the Spaniards were lured to Soconusco for their cacao. As the demand for chocolate increased due to a growing craving for chocolate in Europe, rapacious conquistadors began enslaving the indigenous people of Soconusco such that a slave would be valued at one fifth of a load of cacao. However, on May 29th, 1537 Pope Paul III Farnese would publish the Sublima Deus which threatened to excommunicate any Christian that enslaved an “Indian”. While this led to the end of the enslavement of indigenous people, this merely led to the Encomienda system in which encomenderos were getting what amounted to forced, free labor in return for which they were to see that the native people became Christians (Coe and Coe 178). However, due to an epidemic of diseases of Old World origin and mistreatment by the Spaniards, approximately 90% of the ingienous population of the Americas had died while the demand for chocolate only grew (Coe and Coe 125).
In order to meet the demands for cocoa by Europe without the loss of profits, the falling population of the indigenous people of Mesoamerica were offset by the importation of slaves from Africa. By the 17th century, two triangles of trade would arise in which raw materials, goods, and slaves would be traded between the New World, Europe, and Africa. The most important feature of these triangles was the “Middle Passage” in which human beings were sent across the Atlantic to be forced into labor on plantations run by European colonizers (Mintz 44). This plantation system in which sugar, cacao, and other products were produced were grounded in the use of harsh, forced labor in which the average life expectancy of an enslaved person living in the Caribbean and Brazil was about seven to eight years. Despite abolition and the emancipation of slaves throughout the 1800s, abolition did not put an end to extreme inequality or exploitative labor practices. For example, in the early 1900s, it was found that cocoa plantations in Fernando Po and Cameroon were still using slave labor. Moreover, the use of slaves was common on Portuguese plantations from the 1880s well into the 1950s (Martin). Thus for years many plantations were able to keep the price of cocoa down as demand went up by using forced labor and slavery.
Currently despite labor reformation efforts, child labor is still being utilized to produce the chocolate that we eat in the United States. Although major chocolate producers like Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey pledged to discontinue their use of cocoa harvested by children approximately 20 years ago, a great portion of the chocolate we buy and consume today contains cocoa produced by child labor (Whoriskey and Siegel). According to the U.S. Labor Department, more than 2 million children have been found to be engaged in dangerous labor in cocoa-growing regions in West Africa, where 60 percent of the world’s cocoa supply comes from (“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa”). Despite efforts to eradicate child labor from the chocolate industry, chocolate industries are unable to identify the farms from which their cocoa comes from, let alone identify their labor practices. For example, Mars can only trace 24 percent of their cocoa supply back to the farms in which they were produced (Whoriskey and Siegel). Thus, despite efforts by the chocolate industry to solve the child labor epidemic in the cocoa industry, deadlines and goals have only been pushed back.
While the fight to improve labor conditions in the chocolate industry continues, it is unlikely that we will see big changes any time soon. With the history of cocoa producers having a blatant disregard for human life and clear mindset of profits over people, it will be extremely difficult for chocolate producers to trace their cocoa supplies back to farms or punish farms for exploitative labor practices as both of these efforts would require a large financial investment and cuts to profit. Moreover, until chocolate producers are willing to pay more for ethically sourced cocoa, farmers will be forced to continue using child labor in order to cope with cocoa’s low market price (Whoriskey and Siegel). Therefore, as long as the cocoa industry refuses to cut its profits in order to enact change, exploitative labor practices will continue.
“Child Labor in the Production of Cocoa.” U.S. Department of Labor,
Cacao, cocoa, and chocolate can be found throughout the world. Traces of cacao can be dated all the way back to the Olmec Civilization in 1500 BCE. Cacao was formerly known as kakawa, and it was a cultural delicacy that spread throughout Central America before spreading to Europe. Their products are enjoyed widespread and have been adopted into many different ethnic dishes. Even though chocolate today is very prevalent in numerous cultures, cacao emerged as a foreign commodity entering Europe which resulted in the Catholic Church being skeptical of its nature.
In 1735, a greek man named Carolus Linneaus came up with the name for the plant that chocolate is derived from; he called it Theobroma Cacao, which also meant, “Food of the Gods”. The early harvesters of cacao were the Mayans and the Aztecs, and these two cultures prepared cacao in a variety of drinks and dishes. These edible preparations of cacao can be linked to religious activities. The Aztecs believed that cacao was a link between the gods and earth; the uses of cacao included learning, death rites, and coming of age rituals. The Mayans prepared a cacao drink called xocolatl which was consumed formally and for daily pleasure. At Mayan festivals blood sacrifice, offerings, and ritual dancing took place xocolatl was used to honor Ek Chauh the cacao god; xocolatl in this context was believed to allow the consumer to engage in the spirit realm. The function of cacao as a ritual device that was connected to pagan gods adds to its perception as a foreign commodity.
As the Spaniards advanced to Mexico with plans to colonize the indegenous people, they encountered the various customs that pertained to the natives living there. One of the main methods of colonization was converting the natives to Catholicism. Converting the natives meant that the Spaniards had to remove the traces of the pagan religions that they found in Mexico. Despite the efforts to convert the natives,”the Aztec drink chocolatl was taken from its Aztec ceremonial use and retained by the Spanish as a tasty beverage and as a medicine”. Within the Bible, there are many passages that forbid the connection to idols and Acts of the Apostles Chapter 15 Verse 29 says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell.” As cocoa began to spread from the New World, the question arises, “is cocoa palimpsest of the pagan traditions that used it for ceremonial use?”
Towards the end of the 1600s, cocoa was integrated into Europe. It was primarily mixed with water or milk, and it was a drink of the elite. Unlike the Aztecs, in Europe cocoa was not used for formal religious practices; however, the Europeans did experience the great pleasure that cocoa consumption brought. The consumption of cocoa brought them so much pleasure that consumers justified its consumption by saying that it was medicinal. A specific example of use of cocoa being medicinal was in the church. Ladies in church would claim, “ it prevented fainting and “weakness” during the long ceremonies”, in order to justify its consumption. In one church a bishop claimed that the consumption of cocoa was an abuse, saying that it broke the fast; this prompted the ladies to find a new congregation to worship in. The pleasure that this foreign commodity was providing on top of the breaking of fast was so much an issue that Pope Alexander VII declared,”Liquidum non frangit jejunum”. Liquidum non frangit jejunum, when translated to English means “liquids do not break the fast”. For the Aztecs, xocolatl linked them to the spirit world during ritual, and for the ladies in the church, cocoa consumption was a way to keep them engaged during church service. Despite the skepticism that followed cacao from the New World, there were similarities in both its uses and its appreciation.
Today chocolate can be associated with words like pleasure, love, and comfort. The shift from skepticism to acceptance followed the technological advances such as the hydraulic press that allowed for the accessibility of chocolate to increase. Hopefully continuing to move forward the only skepticism that is associated with chocolate deals with what is actually inside of the chocolate instead of the culture that the chocolate came from.
An Examination of Unethical Practices in
the Cocoa Industry
(Food Empowerment Project)
This semester we
looked intensively at the use of slave labor in the chocolate industry, and the
responsibility of chocolate companies to do their part in ensuring that the
chocolate they sell is not coming from unethical child labor. Top chocolate
selling companies like Nestle and Hershey have all taken accountability for
their role in the problem and pledged to fight to eliminate child labor in the
production of cocoa. In fact, a couple
of years ago, Nestle made the news with its pledge that its iconic KitKat bars
would be made with cocoa that has been verified by third party agencies to
ensure that it was supplied from ethical sources. Yet, KitKat is only one type
of bar that Nestle makes, and no statement was issued regarding whether or not
the rest of their chocolate products would be subjected to this new guideline. This
small step was not highly regarded by those looking for chocolate companies to
take legitimate steps towards fighting this issue. Although Nestle hoped that
their pledge would take some pressure off of them, it had no such effect. In
2018, a U.S. federal appeals court reopened a lawsuit filed by a group of
former child slaves accusing Nestle of perpetuating child labor in the Ivory
Coast. (Bellon) Nestle was also sued by a legal firm who alleges that they
deceived consumers about the use of slave labor to provide cocoa for their
brands Crunch and Butterfinger. This same legal firm has also opened a lawsuit
against Hershey and Mars on similar grounds. So, the three largest chocolate companies
in the world, are all facing lawsuits over using chocolate that is the result
of slave labor. Anyone who is familiar with the horrors children face on cocoa
farms would surely be angered and disgusted. Due to the history of this
country, the term slavery should be enough of a trigger word alone to dissuade
any company from wanting to be associated with any product that is the result
of slave labor. This, coupled with the fact that chocolate companies are
consistently being sued for their role in perpetuating slave labor on cocoa,
makes me wonder why chocolate companies are not doing more to distance
themselves from these unethical cocoa farms.
First, let’s take
a look at some statistics that contribute to the problem. There are about 5 to
6 million cocoa farmers in the world, and another 40-50 million who depend on
the cocoa industry for their livelihood. (USDOL) Almost 70% percent of the
world’s cocoa comes from West Africa. Nearly 40% of the Ivory Coast’s
population is involved in some form of cocoa farming and 60% of the Ivory Coast’s
export revenue is funded by the cocoa industry. (USDOL) As you can see, West
African countries heavily depend on the cocoa industry for economic stability. For
many of them, it is their most consistent and stable form of income for the
country. Thus, it makes sense that they want to minimize their costs as much as
possible. The typical cocoa farmer in the Ivory Coast and Ghana is paid an
average of $2 per day. This forces many farmers to turn to the cheapest form of
labor possible, child/slave labor. Because many in West Africa live in poverty,
children are often forced to start working to help support their families at
very young ages. This makes them a lot more susceptible to being trafficked,
kidnapped, or sold into slave labor. The children can work up to 100 hours a
week and perform a number of dangerous tasks such as: operating a machete,
carrying bags of cocoa pods that weigh over 100 lbs, and operating in close
proximity with chemicals without protective gear. (slavefreechocolate) If they
try to escape or aren’t working fast enough, they are beaten and whipped. Some
of the children involved in slave labor are as young as 5 or 6 years old.
Chocolate Companies’ Role
With the knowledge
of all the horrors children face in the cocoa industry, it would seem that
everyone, including the major chocolate companies, would want to fight to end
this issue. Yet, chocolate companies have been largely idle. In 2001, the US
House of Representatives decided to take action and voted to consider a bill
which would require all chocolate companies to confirm that they were child
labor free and to label their products this way. (Willow) American chocolate
companies responded with a fierce lobbying campaign against this law. They
argued that there was no way for them to control what happened on cocoa farms
across the world, and that cocoa supply lines were usually so long and complex
that it was nearly impossible to verify that the cocoa they receive came from a
farm that did not make use of child labor. Because of the lobbying efforts of
American chocolate companies, the protocol the house wanted to vote on was
watered down and released in 2001 as the Harkin-Engel Protocol. (Willow) The
Harkin-Engel protocol did not require companies to verify that their chocolate is
not supplied by slave labor, and the issue of labeling seemed to be completely
forgotten. We are almost 20 years removed from the release of the protocol and
almost nothing substantial seems to have been accomplished. Even KitKat’s
gesture is not even close to the type of support needed to spark real change in
the industry. This was a major win for chocolate companies, whose response to
the original protocol is indicative of the fact that they just don’t have any
real interest in solving this issue.
There are a couple reasons the chocolate giants
are disinterested in putting forth any real effort towards solving the
child/slave labor issue we have examined so far. One, as stated earlier, is that
it would require effort on the part of the chocolate companies to ensure that
their cocoa is produced ethically. Supply chains in the cocoa industry are long
and complex, and because of the enormous child labor problem in Western Africa,
it would take a lot of verification on their end to determine that the
companies they are buying from are using ethical practices. However, second and
probably most important, is the fact that it would require chocolate giants
like Hershey and Nestle to sacrifice some of their profit. According to the
Prime Minister of the Ivory Coast, chocolate companies will have to pay around
10 times the current price of price of cocoa if they want to end the use of
unethical child labor there. This would obviously drive up the price of their
products, and cut into a big percentage of their profits. Any strategy that
encourages corporations to sacrifice profit in the name of morality is one that
is flawed. So, let’s look at some alternative ways to end dangerous child labor
on the Western Africa cocoa farms.
The biggest reason
that this situation exists is poverty. The West African economy depends so
heavily on the cocoa industry, however there is not even a minimum wage or
minimum price for farmers to sell their cocoa. This was not the case until the
cocoa industry was privatized in 1999. Once the industry was privatized, cocoa
prices fell drastically, poverty became widespread, and the government stopped
spending money on necessities such as healthcare and education. (USDOL) This
all came at the expense of the cocoa farmers who work in isolation on small
farms with no way to communicate with each other about market cocoa prices. World
cocoa prices have been well below the price of production costs since the
industry was privatized. Some countries refuse to buy cocoa from West African
countries who they suspect of using slave labor on their farms. This causes
West African farmers to have to sell their cocoa at an even lower price. Farmers
do not even make enough money to afford trucks to transport their beans so they
are forced to rely on exploitative middlemen, who give them cash for the beans
and haul them away. Without the knowledge of the worth of their beans, farmers
are unable negotiate better prices for them. Instead, they must just accept the
prices that these exploitative buyers are willing to pay or risk not selling
their beans at all. So, even if cocoa prices rise, the farmers themselves will
not be able to benefit from it.
A major step
towards a solution would be for more advanced countries, like the United
States, who purchase large amounts of cocoa from countries who use slave labor
and are concerned about slave labor in Africa to invest in the farmers in those
countries. Equipping farmers with something simple like trucks to transport
their beans to markets would allow them to have an understanding of world
prices, negotiate better prices for themselves, and cut out exploitative
middlemen who take away a lot of their profit. This alone would increase
producer surplus exponentially and allow farmers to be able to rely on more
ethical forms of labor to produce their cocoa. Another possible solution would
be a mandate of a minimum price for cocoa. Thanks to Fair Trade Certified
producer groups, this is the case in some countries in Western Africa. These
groups cover different nine African countries and represent thousands of
farmers. Chocolate companies who buy from farms belonging to a Fair Trade
Certified group pay the farmers the world market price plus a stipend that guarantees
farmers have livable wages. (Food Empowerment Project) Farms that belong to
these groups are inspected once a year and there is zero tolerance for
unethical labor practices. Although only a small portion of the world’s cocoa
is produced on Fair Trade Certified farms, they represent a possible solution
to the problem. A more drastic approach would be to standardize groups like
this, and to force all farms to join a group like this in order to be legally
able to sell cocoa beans. This approach would likely be seen as problematic
because the chocolate giants are not buying their cocoa from Fair Trade
Certified farms. However, to combat that point, we must hold large
chocolate-selling companies like Nestle and Hershey accountable. Countries who
allow these chocolate giants to sell their products should pass legislation
similar to that of the original Harkin-Engel protocol proposal. These companies
should not be allowed to sell their products without verifying that their cocoa
is supplied by ethical sources. This is extremely important because, like the
farmers, these companies are looking to minimize their production costs.
Changing the way the farmers do business won’t completely eradicate child labor
if the chocolate giants are not forced to also make the switch to more ethical
practices. Forcing the chocolate companies’ hand will ensure that the farmers are
not the ones who suffer the consequences of changed legislation. Because, as we
have seen, when the farmers suffer, they turn to cheap, unethical solutions.
countries depend heavily on the cocoa industry for economic success. Their reliance
on this industry, cocoa farmers struggle to sell their product for a livable
wage and chocolate companies refusal to acknowledge their role in the situation
resulted in this large-scale slave labor problem that we see today. If we truly
want to eradicate this problem in Western Africa, solutions like the one laid
out in this paper are a good start. I hope that through this paper you have a
better understanding of the horrors of slave labor on cocoa farms. However, I
also hope that you are optimistic about the future, because solutions are right
in front of us. We just have to hold the major players in this cruel game accountable.
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.
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).
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
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. 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.
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
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:
The complexity and scope of the issue;
range and number of actors and implications along the value chain at each stage;
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
calls for greater transparency.
Specific to claims around the lack of transparency and access, deficiencies noted during the discussion included the following:
Visibility into supply chain monitoring plans, geographical scope, findings, and improvements; and
the number, frequency, and quality of public disclosures of internal reports.
In practice, the following are evident:
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;
companies are leading in investments in certification programs, traceability systems, coordinating industry-wide efforts and policy formulation; and
the quality and frequency of reporting are there despite claims that it is absent of lacking.
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
Casara, M., Dallabrida, P., Martin, Carla D. “Examining Brazil’s Cocoa-Chocolate Supply Chain”.
Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. April 24, 2019. Film Screening and
Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor”.
Harvard University: Cambridge, MA. March 6, 2019. Lecture.
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
“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.
The history of cocoa in West Africa goes back to late 1800’S where it was grown in the Western parts of the Ivory Coast, close to Liberia, but it did not capture the attention of colonists until two decades later.(1) One of the many colonial legacies is that a lot of African countries inherited economies that relied heavily on the exportation of one commodity. Ivory Coast, for example, has become the leading producer of cocoa and it accounts for more than 15% of its GDP. While this is not necessarily a negative thing in itself, such a narrow economic base places the country at risk of volatile world prices and spillover effects from foreign markets that linked to cocoa. In article featured in Africa Business, early March 2019, the author notes that “between September 2016 and February 2017, the cocoa Barometer for 2018 reported that the global market price declined steeply, with a tonne of cocoa…declining from $3000 to $1900.”(2) This was a result of many factors including the lack of domestic infrastructure to store cocoa beans in season of high yield and less demand. This results in pressure to sell all the beans from one season before they go bad and the farmers have to throw them away.(2) Expectedly, farmers and labor workers who work in this industry were hit the hardest and the Ivory Coast lost about $1billion.
Following this crisis, the government of Ivory Coast has been working with the African Development bank to “rehabilitate the industry with new programs and schemes to attract more young people into the industry.” (3) They are also focusing on creating more domestic chocolate processing factories to capitalize on their raw materials and capture more value from the production of cocoa.(3) However, this cocoa industry, like the agriculture industry in general, is still a risky business and can easily crumble down in times of floods, pest epidemics and other natural disasters. In this essay, I discuss the colonial origins that have shaped the current cocoa industry in the Ivory Coast, their influence on the ongoing conflicts over cocoa related resources, and finally the need for Ivory Coast to diversify their economy to avoid the brutal effects of trade imbalances that may arise and exacerbate the conflicts.
Colonial roots of cocoa production in West Africa.
The colonial rule in most African countries not only shaped the economic evolution of many African states but also the political and the social. In order to understand this, it is important to understand the framework of institutions and how colonial rule helped shape the subsequent nature and shape that African institutions took in the postcolonial era. In their paper on institutions, “Understanding Institutions”, Acemoglu and Robinson argue that institutions- in other words how society is organized and functions- affect the economic performance of a country and account for the varying success in the performance of African countries post-colonialism. They find a strong correlation between extractive institutions and poor economic performance over a certain period of time. While there are some endogenous weaknesses in this analysis, it provides us the framework we need to understand the colonial effects of French rule in the Ivory Coast and how the cocoa industry became a battleground for elite ethnic groups.(4)
For the Ivory Coast, French colonial rule influenced how labor and land policies evolved over time- through both what it did and what it did not do. Firstly, because the country was sparsely populated, European settlers maintained strict laws on labor distribution through a quota system that prohibited African farmers from hiring labor until white farmers had their adequate supply of labor.(5) After the second world war, labor became increasingly scarce and many local farmers rallied against forced labor laws which led to “the cocoa boom of the 1950’s.”(5) However, this also meant that demand for land increased dramatically as both locals and migrants scrambled to take part in the booming industry of cocoa production. Secondly, the colonial legacy of taking land without formal political and legal processes has fueled the culture of entitlement for most ethnic groups. In her paper on, “Neocolonialism or Balanced Partnership? Reframing Agricultural Relation Between the EU and Africa”, Ioana Lungu discusses the influence of colonial history in perpetuating the culture of land grabbing within a modern context. She argues that “land grabbing can be understood as a crisis of neoliberalism intersecting with neoliberal development narratives…” (6)
To reframe this within the Ivorian context, by claiming land without any institutional accountability, colonists set a foundation for future conflicts over land redistribution. As Dwayne Woods, an associate professor of political science, notes “generous concessions of land from forest reserves were authorised”. (5) To summarize, while the French had a legal framework for the distribution of labor from which Ivorians could build their own, there was none for land. A clear example of poor institutions is the absence of solid property rights that leave the elite in charge of redistribution. Thus, setting in motion the trend that would ultimately lead to extreme violence between tribes when these resources were no longer enough.The increasing costs of forest rent have become a major factor in the ethnic conflicts that are tearing apart the once socially and politically state of Ivory Coast. Forest rent is defined as the difference between “the cost of producing a kilogram of coca after clearing forest land and the cost of producing a kilogram of cocoa upon replanting.”(5)
This increase is as a result of multiple factors including the rise of land and labor costs over time as demand for arable land became higher. This also stems from the increasing marginal costs associated with re-planting cacao trees which was not there at the pioneer front- “sporadic development of unexploited tropical forest lands to plant cocoa trees”.(5) These marginal costs result from the increasing need for fertilizers, labor and better seeds to maintain the same level of production once the soil starts losing its original richness. With all these moving pieces, farmers become anxious to acquire more tropical forestland and the “cost of reclaiming land with violence is less than trying to mobilise the increased labour and capital costs to maintain the forest rent.” (5) However, one can argue that this aggressive demand for land is tied to the narrow economic base that the Ivory Coast, like many other African countries, inherited from their colonial histories. These populations have limited options for economic activities and continue to fight each other over the “most profitable” economic activity available to them- cocoa production.
Economic development through Trade
This is going to become an even bigger problem as environmental groups push for less deforestation- that happens when farmers clear the forest in order to plant cocoa trees(7)- and land share becomes smaller for the demands rising population. Pests and diseases, old age cocoa farms and lack of soil nutrients have also contributed to the continuous decline of productivity and farms might not be able to meet the global demand for cocoa.(8) This would have larger implications if major buyers had to shift to other countries to acquire their supply demands. Yet, cocoa production still remains a major contributor to economic growth and urbanization in Ivory Coast. The question thus arises on whether Ivory Coast should invest in diversifying its economy away from the cocoa industry or if it should focus on creating interventions that increase productivity in the cocoa sector. There are various implications of either choice. As the lead producer of cocoa in the world, the Ivory Coast has gain tremendous economic profits from trading on the world market. These developments have gone beyond trading and had spillover effects in the rest of the economy resulting in urbanization and other economic development improvements.
According to researcher Remi Jedwab, in his paper on, “Why is African Urbanization Different? Evidence from Resource Exports in Ghana and Ivory Coast”, argues that cocoa booms have led to city booms and consequently economic growth. He disputes the idea that structural transformations such as the green economy and the industrial revolution that accounted for the development of cities through their effect on labor mobility in the West apply in the African context. He then proceeds to argue that, for countries like the Ivory Coast, urbanization trajectory has been closely interconnected with that of cocoa production.(7) He notes that cocoa production, like urban growth, started in the East of the country and moved towards the West, but cities in the East did not collapse as more cities were formed in the West. He found that about 80% urban growth in the Ivory Coast happened in areas suitable for cocoa production and traces the trajectory as it moved East to West. That being said, it is important to maintain that correlation is not necessary causation. This urbanization could be a result of infrastructural investment and labor migration to areas of cocoa production due to its central place in the general economy. If most jobs are generated within the Agriculture sector, and more precisely cocoa production, then more people will follow wherever the industry seems to be heading.
Yet, we have seen that Ivory Coast is moving towards industrialization. The government is investing increasing both yield per ha and factories that manufacture various cocoa products. This means capturing as much value from the supply chain as possible through creating a range of factories from grinding entities to chocolate-making companies.(9) It is working towards expanding the secondary market that processes products from cocoa to reduce tensions surrounding land acquisition. This is also an attempt to create a market for their surplus and address the issue of declining cocoa prices that has resulted from a supply surplus and “substantial reserve held by consuming countries”.(9) The latter is another consideration for the Ivory Coast when evaluating its position in the world market as a country with the highest comparative advantage in cocoa production. As noted by the OECD, in a report on cocoa production by the Ivory Coast, developed countries took advantage of falling prices to store reserves and thus changing the trading landscape. Ivory Coast, and other African producers of cocoa, remain price takers because of low investment in reserves and the lack of regulation policies that protect local farmers. The result of a limited market creates tensions in which the elites struggle to accumulate all profits from cocoa along ethnic and tribal lines. This leaves farmers insecure about the safety and sustainability of their businesses and in turn affects their production capacity as well as their livelihood.
So far, we have studied two difficult problems. On one hand, the comparative advantage that Ivory Coast has in cocoa production has not realized its full potential due to lack or limited complimentary infrastructure and policy framework to protect farmers and the economy in general. This lack of policy framework and infrastructure is a result of a combination of factors including the legacy of colonial institutions, poor leadership, and ethnic diversity along economic lines. On the other hand, we have seen an opportunity within this problem. The possibilities to diversify within the cocoa producing sectors by creating secondary markets through which the now majority youth working in the cocoa sector can transfer. I also discussed, briefly, the need for diversification to other sectors and other exports that do not rely on acquisition of big lands and that doesn’t require high labor demands. Alternatively, the Ivory Coast can consider investing in mechanized systems of cocoa production along with new education practices that allow the current labor surplus to transition in other sectors. Additionally, the new trade agreement among African countries to open borders- remove tariffs, allow labor mobility might help address this issue in the long run as more people have the choice of immigrating to other countries where they can contribute. That being said, this cannot solved without a political commitment by the government to address these challenges without partiality and with accountability.