Can chocolate ever be considered ethical? (Part two)

Hmm. As I was thinking about global poverty and the developed/undeveloped [crappy terms, I know] schism, the earth opened up and a literal schism was created, and now thousands of mostly poor people are dying.

This world, this world.

You probably know this, but aid is sorely needed. Jacob did some research and we decided to each donate, via text message, to Wyclef Jean’s foundation, Yele (text “Yele” to 501501 and $5 will be added to your phone bill) and the Red Cross (Text “Haiti” to 90999 and $10 will be added to your phone bill). (See Ruby’s comment below for more info)

Back to chocolate.

Bitter Chocolate is packed with fascinating insights about the way the chocolate trade functions under globalized capitalism—but it’s also really readable, not boring or dry at all. I really recommend it, and am sort of in awe of the lengths the author, Carol Off (whose voice I know from the CBC radio program “As It Happens”) went to to get the scoop—without a doubt, her life was in danger more than once.

Hand-harvesting wild pink peppercorns for Furious Vulvas

Here are a few random tidbits that especially spoke to me.

Off really goes into the negative consequences boycotts and very tough labeling systems can have on fragile markets. I don’t want to be one of those people who say that we should buy sweatshop shit from China because if we don’t the women who work in the sweatshops won’t have a job at all, but it is important to remember that boycotts without alternative solutions aren’t all that useful.

In describing the many, many perils faced by a rider attached to an ag appropriations bill in 2001 that proposed “a labelling system for chocolate that would proclaim the candy to be ‘slave-free’ if it could be documented that the product hadn’t involved the work of exploited children,” Off describes what happened when a similar bill was proposed in 2002:

The legislation ultimately failed to pass Congress but even the threat of such a boycott sent a chill through industry worldwide and had devastating consequences, particularly in Bangladesh, where the country’s garment manufacturers abruptly dismissed about fifty thousand child workers. Most of the children had been supporting their families and were subsequently forced to turn to other more dangerous and less lucrative employment—some in rock crushing and many others in prostitution. (p. 141)

The rider mentioned above eventually became the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Off does a good job describing the problems with Americans imposing top-down solutions on the problems with cocoa bean harvesting. She touches on what Christy mentioned yesterday—the only real solution that will stick is paying more, lots more, and ensuring that the money trickles all down the line to the actual producers and pickers, etc.

…Almost every critic of the industry has identified the key problem: poverty among the primary producers. [The protocol had many stringent rules for labor standards, but was short on how they could actually feasibly be accomplished]. Farmers seek, and exploit, the cheapest forms of labour possible because of economic necessity….’How effective will the Harkin-Engel Protocol be in the long run when it doesn’t address the direct correlation between low prices paid to farmers for their cocoa beans and the type and quality of labor employed? The Prime Minister of Côte d’Ivoire had warned cocoa companies when the child trafficking scandal first emerged that the manufacturers would have to pay about ten times more for their cocoa if they really wanted to end forced labor.

So there you have it. You can probably guess what happened then: Big Chocolate wouldn’t allow that to happen, and the Harkin-Engel Protocol gradually lost all teeth.

Extortion, corruption, torture, killing of journalists, kidnappings, beatings, Hershey forcing farmers to plant shitty hybrid varieties of cacao and uproot the tasty and lovely Criollo variety…I don’t have the heart to copy lots more, but there is a very illuminating section about what happened when Green & Blacks entered the stage.

In a nutshell: they wanted to change the industry and make truly ethical chocolate, it seems. They began buying chocolate from Mayans in Belize after Hershey had decimated the area. They brought the concept of fair trade to the UK mainstream and did truly help the Maya in Belize sustainably produce chocolate without forced labor. Children started going to school again. “The farmers were producing the highest-quality cocoa in the region, mostly because the guaranteed price allowed them to develop proper fermenting and drying techniques. Elsewhere in Central America…farmers didn’t bother with quality since it made no difference to the price.” (p. 285) Things were humming along.

And then Green & Blacks became “a victim of its own success.” As they needed more and more cacao beans to keep up with increased demand for their eco- and people-friendly product, they “started to put the heat on farmers.” (p. 290) Pressure to produce more product faster—you know how that goes. Not well. Off doesn’t go into all that much detail about what “the heat” exactly was, apart from a desire to ramp up production, and we’re left with the impression that the Green & Blacks Mayan enterprise was somewhat of a pyrrhic victory.

Either way, in 2005 Cadbury Schweppes bought a controlling interest in Green & Blacks—Cadbury being, of course, one of the original consumers of and market-drivers of slave chocolate and a vociferous opponent of anything resembling fair labor practices. So now one of the most notorious slave-chocolate makers partially owns one of the founding fair trade chocolate makers. Capitalism sees nothing strange about this arrangement.

Here are some of the uglier sides of the fair trade labeling process Off dredges up (many of these apply, in the US, to the USDA organic certification as process as well, which any organic-growing but not certified-organic farmer can tell you is a fiasco):

  • “While fair trade is, in theory, one of the most ethical movements of our time, in practice it generates a cumbersome bureaucracy.” (p. 292)
  • One problem seems to be that the “international standards for fair trade are enshrined in a series of rules” in Germany, though they are put into action in the developing world. We clearly need solutions created by and for those who actually work in the industry being regulated.
  • One fair trade administrator who works with the Maya growing Green & Blacks cacao beans says: “It’s becoming a hell of a good deal for First World bureaucrats and it’s becoming less of a good deal for producers, and we have to pay for it.” (p. 292)
  • In addition to the paperwork, the levies are “staggering,” particularly for small co-ops already struggling to survive. And, as many of the areas in which cacao is grown are already rife with corruption—you can draw your own conclusions.

So, what can we do? What can I do, as a chocolate artisan? I guess just what I have been doing: refusing to close my eyes, pushing, listening, learning, making hard decisions. Paying a lot for chocolate, asking a lot of questions about it. I hope that, as Christy mentioned, I could someday get to the level where I actually had a hand in making the actual chocolate I use from scratch. (I know how to do it, I just need to do it.) Things are getting better—I have to believe this.

Well, some things. This world, this world.

But! There are wild pink peppercorns out there, still, and we can climb mountains and gather them and carry them home in cute little packets on our hips. It’s not chocolate, but it feels good to take control of one aspect of food production. The power is ours—at least a little of it, still.

11 Responses to “Can chocolate ever be considered ethical? (Part two)”

  1. Deb

    I haven’t read up enough on the topic to speak in depth about it, and I don’t have any links to share, but someone brought up a point to me a few years ago that when it comes to luxury crops, one of the issues was that people are now growing crops for money, with the potential to starve to death depending on the market. Versus growing food to live, independent of the market. I know that’s all very simplistic, but I was wondering if a) that applies in the case of chocolate (since it assumes that the land is/was suitable for growing food crops) and b) if that’s touched on by Off, and c) anything else that comes to mind that I’m not thinking to ask about!

    I’m really interested in this topic, and I’m glad you wrote about it. I’m putting “Bitter chocolate” on the to-read list!

    Reply
    • lagusta

      That’s a fascinating point…and I don’t know the answer/solution to it. I do know that most cacao varieties grow best in shade, which most food crops usually don’t. The book didn’t cover it, but I wish it had. She did talk about how many farmers routinely go hungry because of market cacao bean fluctuations and, separately, how they often nibble on the cacao beans (the outside of the nibs, before fermentation, are tasty and sweet like other tropical fruits), so there is at least that.

      Reply
  2. eissej

    I love that you listen to the CBC!
    You should check out Rex Murphy for an amusing Newfoundlander’s perspective.
    In more intelligent

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Yeah, I like a couple CBC podcasts–WireTap and As It Happens are my go-to ones these days. I just added Rex Murphy, thanks!

      Reply
  3. eissej

    Sorry, in a most intelligent response:

    Agreed. Although I don’t consume much chocolate I do, as a university student, consume copious amounts of coffee and despite the fact that I dropped upwards of three hundred dollars on texts I will read once and forget about, I refuse to buy anything but Fair Trade, organic and shade-grown coffee. Not only a matter of taste but also because I … despite reservations and a willingness to conceed to the arguements I know you will have in response … do not reject captialism. Having said that, I am fully aware of the fact that it’s basic tennants can easily argued as corrupt/exploiative but boycott/protests accomplish less than nothing, so instead, I spend in harmony with my values. Or at least try.
    So basically, that is to say I appreciate your wonderfully unbalanced yet such correct assements.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      I feel ya. I do believe that capitalism COULD be practiced well. It just isn’t (because of humans’ inherent shittiness? Maybe). And I can’t argue that I’m outside the capitalist system, I’m not at all. I just try to do my best. In an ideal world we would dismantle it, but I can’t pretend I have that much hope, so I just try to do what I can in my own business to practice it well. I think we’re on pretty much the same path.

      Reply

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