For most of us, chocolate likely evokes feelings of comfort and indulgence, memories of happiness and celebration. Unsurprisingly, when we bite into our favourite bars, we neglect to consider their supply chains. We are guilty of creating a substantial psychological distance between the products we consume and the exploitative practices that make up their production.
The history of the cocoa industry is long and rich, characterised by European exploitation of African people and resources. Today, the relics of this history endure.
West Africa produces around 75% of the world’s cocoa, totalling around 3 million tonnes. Most of this is enjoyed by Europeans, who consume over half of all cocoa produced. By stark contrast, only 4% is consumed by West Africans themselves. Many farmers simply cannot afford chocolate. Many have never tasted it. And yet, in the Ivory Coast alone, approximately 8 million people are financially dependent on cocoa. In Ghana, cocoa constitutes around 20% of total exports.
Cocoa is a vast, lucrative industry, estimated to be worth around $120 billion. However, these profits are scarcely seen by West African farmers. The vast majority of cocoa farmers live below the poverty line of $1.90 a day, where the average bar of chocolate would set them back $4.50.
The factors contributing to the prevalence of child labour in cocoa farms in Ghana and the Ivory Coast are wide-ranging and complex, and cannot be explained solely by looking at Western consumption. Poverty, the absence of viable economic and agricultural alternatives, government policies, and a lack of access to education are all significant.
Nevertheless, the cocoa industry not only perpetuates, but exploits cycles of poverty in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The Western demand for cocoa directly impacts West African people, landscapes, and economics.
Despite working within an industry worth $120 billion, farmers are offered incredibly low prices for their produce. Chocolate companies attempt to keep production costs as low as possible, while governments fail to guarantee farmers a minimum price. Low prices mean low wages. Therefore, farmers are unable to hire staff let alone pay them living wages. Consequently, some farmers hire their own children. Moreover, child migrants from poorer countries such as Burkina Faso and Mali are attracted by the prospect of work, while traffickers tell their parents they will be cared for and provided with educational opportunities. This is not the reality.
Most estimates arrive at 2 million children working in cocoa plantations in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, a setting ripe for human trafficking and forced labour. It is difficult to articulate the horrific nature of work demanded of children working on cocoa plantations. Children as young as 6 years-old work long hours to carry extremely heavy baskets, spray pesticides without protection, and operate dangerous tools like chainsaws and machetes, often resulting in health conditions and injury.
Large-scale deforestation and the forced relocation of communities are archetypal of the cocoa industry’s expansion. A law introduced in the Ivory Coast in 2019 represented a renewed threat to its communities and national parks. Rather than supporting farmers, governments typically play into the hands of cocoa giants, whose practices have damaging, long-term impacts on West African people and landscapes. Corporations see their leverage and profits expanded, while farmers are trapped in cycles of poverty.
In a similar vein, cocoa giant Nestlé recently revoked its commitment to Fairtrade. In the Ivory Coast, Fairtrade saw tangible realisations of change for farmers supplying Nestlé with cocoa beans. Its outlawing of child labour, establishment of cooperatives, and guarantee of minimum prices gave farmers some semblance of security and stability. It must be said, Fairtrade has its drawbacks – though it provides protection to its own farmers, it risks damaging the livelihoods of others outside its reach, while risking pushing children into other dangerous work, such as prostitution. Still, Nestlé’s revocation of its commitment to Fairtrade arguably reveals its preference for profit over the welfare of those working at the beginning of its supply chains. To put this decision into perspective, many farmers in the Ivory Coast live on less than the cost of one KitKat per day. Meanwhile, Nestle’s profits in 2019 totalled £8 billion.
These issues necessitate systemic change on an international scale. Cocoa giants and West African governments have a joint responsibility to enact policies which empower farmers by providing them with the resources necessary to enhance their own skills and efficiency, whilst creating access to better opportunities and welfare. Instead, Western capitalist consumption dictates that profit-driven practices continue.
As consumers, the very least we can do is educate ourselves on where our products come from. Child labour in Ghana and the Ivory Coast is very much an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue. We sit comfortably in our ignorance of these problems.
The world has been (somewhat) woken up by the spotlight that shines upon police brutality and systemic racism. We are questioning the systems under which we live. Now is also a good time to consider the reliance of consumption in the Global North on the exploitation of the Global South.
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