Tag Archives: Latin America

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/

Arab-Islamic Civilization and Sugar: Laying the Foundation of Modern Sweets and World Food Culture

The Arab-Islamic Civilization spread the cultivation and consumption of sugar, changing worldwide habits and trends in food culture and creations to the modern day.  Straddling three continents, Islamic empires in the medieval era allowed an intermingling of cultures and traditions, from East to West. “The Arab expansion westward marked a turning point in the European experience of sugar…the Arabs introduced sugar cane, its cultivation, the art of sugar making, and a taste for this different kind of sweetness.” (Mintz, 23) It would change the course of history and affect lands and peoples much far away; laying the foundations of large scale plantations that would eventually be established in the Americas and Caribbean Islands.

In a few centuries, sugar went from being a scarce spice and medicine, to a widely consumed, daily staple product of people of all economic standing, all over the world. The crystallization of sugar first started in India and was used in Persia by the sixth century. After the rise of Islam, the Arabs entered Persia and were introduced to the age-old process of sugar produced from cane, adopting and further developing these techniques.  They planted sugar-cane in plantations across their empires, in Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, North Africa, Al-Andalus (Spain and Portugal), and by the tenth century the Arabs were growing the crop in Sicily, all the while perfecting the process of refining it in sugar mills. (Salloum, 4)

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Picture 1: Map Showing Sugar Cultivation by Muslims

In the lands of the Mediterranean, Arabs developed agriculture and introduced new crops to the land, such as, orange, lemon, banana, saffron, fig, date trees, and most importantly, sugar cane. Wherever the Arabs went, they brought sugar, the product and technology of its production with them, to the Iberian Peninsula, Sicily, Crete and Malta. (Mintz, 25) During the Muslim rule in Spain, there was numerous contributions of irrigation, soil management, and scholarly efforts in farming innovation. (Hughes, 68) These plants were used not only in agriculture, but for pharmacy, gardens, luxury trade, and arts.

For nearly eight centuries, under her (Muslim) rulers, Spain set to all of Europe a shining example of a civilized and enlightened State.  Her fertile provinces, rendered doubly prolific by the industry and engineering skill of her conquerors, bore fruit an hundredfold.  Cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys of the Guadalquivir and the Guadiana, whose names, and names only, still commemorate the vanished glories of their past. (Lane-Poole, vii)

Irrigation and agricultural practices established then has had a lasting impact. “The knowledge, handwork, commodities, and luxuries of the East were brought by caravans to the farther East, and came by shipping from the Levant to the Mediterranean ports of Spain.  Seeds and plants were thus transported; thus, came rice and cotton and the sugar-cane”.  (Coppee, 397) Sugar was cultivated as far north as Castellon, which is probably the most northerly point of its commercial cultivation. To the south, it was grown in Arabia Felix, Abyssinia, and the islands and the mainland of East Africa from the ninth century.  From Arabia Felix, or directly from Oman, the plant was brought to Zanzibar, where it was reported the finest sugar came.  From Zanzibar, the plant could have been taken to Madagascar.  (Watson, 30)

Sugar was at first regarded an important spice and medicinal component and was consumed in large quantities in the Middle East.  It was used by physicians from India to Spain, slowly entering European medical practice via Arab Pharmacology.  (Mintz, 80) As early as the eleventh century a treatise on sugar was written by a Baghdadi doctor. (Watson, 27) In addition to the medicinal component, Arabs had a rich development of recipes and cuisine that strongly featured sugar at the time of its movement to Europe. In the Medieval Islamic world, sugar enriched many dishes: sour foods, fish, meats, and stews. Of course, pastries and jams especially were a “paradise of sugar”, using syrups made of white sugar and crystals of colored sugar.  Specific sweets using sugar such as stuffed cannoli, squash jam, caramelized semolina, jelly, among others. In Europe, the names of a number of several medieval dishes reveal their Arab origin. (Zaouali, 44)

“The decades that followed the Moors’ conquest of the Iberian Peninsula brought in a dominant Arab influence—in culture, food, and drink, but especially in the introduction of sugarcane-based sweet treats… And there the foundation was laid for sugar-cane based sweet treats of the world as well…In the history of sweet treats, few “events” had the impact on Western civilizations as did the near-800-year occupation of the Iberian Peninsula by Muslim peoples.   Their main sweet treat legacy—sugarcane” (Roufs, 304)

There was a further East to West transmission of food culture as well.  Figures such as Ziryab, credited with the renewal of the culinary arts in Spain and Europe.  In the ninth century, he moved from Abbasid Baghdad to the ruler’s court in Cordoba.  He led a renewal of culinary understanding and elegance, introducing low tables, tablecloths, cups made from glass, and the succession of courses in a definite order, ending with a sweet dessert. (Zaouali, 41).

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Picture 2: Fourteenth century manuscript document from Ibn al-Bitar’s “Book of Simples” depicting sugar cane. 

The dispersal of Arab inspired sweets left a mark especially on Southern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and Sicily; also transmitted to the Americas with later conquests of the Spanish and Portuguese empires.  Sweet dishes found in Mexico and Latin America such Bunuelos, Alfajores, and Arroz con Leche, were inherited from the medieval Arab chefs in Damascus and Baghdad.  (Salloum, 8) The Arab legacy on sweet foods remains in modern day commodities, many deriving their name directly from the Arabic language. The word ‘Candy’ comes from the Arabic qandi, stemming from the Sanskrit khanda (piece of sugar).  Sherbet, Syrup and Sorbet derive from the Arabic word shariba or sharab (to drink).  The ubiquitous drinks Soda Suwwad (saltwort), Coffee (qahwa), and Alcohol are all derived from Arabic.  Other food term that originate from Arabic, include fruits and vegetables such as Lemon, Lime, Orange, Shaddock, Apricot, Artichoke, Spinach, as well as spices such as Sumac, Saffron, Carob, Caraway, and Tamarind. Rice and pasta were also transmitted to Europe via the Arabs (Watson, 23). Marzipan and sugar decorations were documented in the Middle East centuries before its appearance in Europe, especially in festive times such as Ramadan. (Mintz, 88).

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