Before his chance encounter with a Dutch reporter in 2014, Ivorian cocoa farmer N’Da Alphonse was unaware of the fate of the beans he harvested and sold, beyond their eventual use as a food additive somewhere far away from his village. When the reporter’s news crew offered him a chocolate bar, Alphonse examined the bar and proceeded to take a shy nibble, positing that its pleasant sweetness is the reason “why white people are so healthy!”
In a region that accounts for a third of the world’s cocoa, West African farmers, like Alphonse, have remained far removed from the finished products—and profits—of their labor. Nestlé, Cadbury, and other corporations satisfying the world’s continued craving for cocoa derivatives are well aware of the economic inequity needed to keep their operations profitable. Their spokespeople insist that the sourcing for cheap cocoa is accompanied by a mission towards “balanc[ing] forest protection and communities’ livelihoods;” however, the $9.40 daily income that Alphonse uses to support his family of 15 puts forth evidence of systemic and sustained exploitation.
Hundreds of years before Alphonse started farming cocoa, European colonization laid the groundwork for today’s raw deal between farms and chocolate giants, a deal through which farmers are separated from the lucrative outcomes of their labor. Under this system, resource-based wealth is siloed off from those responsible for its continued generation, lest they demand to be fairly included in the profits. The legacy of colonial brutality in West Africa is still manifest today as an unchecked European economic presence in the cocoa industry.
The cocoa plant first arrived in the 19th century on the island of São Tomé and Príncipe by way of Portuguese traders seeking to expand a booming plantation model from the Americas. Africans were forcibly taken from the mainland continent to fuel the race to satisfy Europe’s demand for cocoa, and this atrocious practice reportedly extended past the Second World War. For a brief period, resistance against foreign economic power was successful in some countries. While much of West Africa continued to operate under the control of the colonial powers, Ghana, for one, successfully established a communal farming system relatively free of European influence. But within 50 years, Nestlé, Cadbury, and the Mars Corporation ended this period of autonomy.
Today, West African farmers operate under a system that descends from this aggressive capitalist race to seize and sell cocoa, a system main- tained by a lack of transparency and regulation in the industry. Alphonse’s obliviousness is characteristic of the estimated 1.5 to 2 million cocoa farmers located in the Ivory Coast and West African tropics who are similarly disconnected from the end product of their labor. As corporate Europe struggles to shed its colonial image, its commitment to mending its history of abuse should continue to be tested through pressure from world governments.
Efforts to bring justice and equity to cocoa farming so far have not been particularly effective. The Harkin-Engel Protocol, a corporate pact designed to rid chocolate supply chains of child labor by 2005, was extended into 2019 with no explanation of how companies operating in Africa plan to make child-labor-free chocolate a reality. In some encouraging news, concessions from corporations point to a retreat from vague sustainability reports and public relations statements. Notably, Mondelez, the parent company of Cadbury, has moved away from posturing, even going so far as to ask governmental agencies to intervene. In a joint statement urging action, they wrote that “the situation remains, despite some progress with a multitude of initiatives over past decades.”
While they may seem promising, such public statements provide little insight into the actual operations of European corporations in Africa. Instead, the European countries that house the world’s cocoa giants must implement regulations with the immediate goal of fair compensation for cocoa farmers. The freedom to self-report the status of workers’ wages and labor conditions incentivizes corporations to remain vague to maintain deniability. The United Nations, the European Union, and other international bodies must independently inspect the production processes of corporations to ensure adherence to basic equality measures. Above all, cocoa farmers and laborers deserve a minimum wage commensurate with their production, a standard that can only be upheld by the collective action of governments and corporations.
Alphonse and his peers have yet to fully realize the significance of their harvests to Big Chocolate. Until governments become proactive in guaranteeing farmers the bare minimum for their labor, the cycle of exploitation will continue into the coming decades and up until the last bar of chocolate is produced.