This series of events was far from unprecedented.
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As discussed in my paperSince the 19th century, when cocoa was first introduced to Africa (and despite the formal abolition of domestic slavery in the region), cocoa cultivation in West Africa has been linked to narratives of slavery and the ensuing protests of chocolate consumers in Europe and America.
As recently as the early 20th century, the Portuguese were importing slaves to São Tomé and Príncipe to work on cocoa farms. This process was described by the British journalist Henry Woodd Nevinson , which had been funded by Harper’s Magazine to investigate rumors of slave labor on cocoa plantations. Upon arrival in São Tomé or Príncipe, each slave was asked if they were willing to work there. Nevinson reported:
In most cases, no response was given. If any response was given, it was ignored. Then a contract was extended for five years of work.
This allowed both Portuguese producers and chocolate producers in Europe to argue that the workers were contract laborers rather than slaves. However, the “contracts” produced were meaningless, as slaves were not allowed to leave the plantations for five years.
Some things have changed since then. Modern slavery mainly involves the trafficking of children, who are treated as a “disposable” source of work. However, some things remain the same. Cocoa buyers and chocolate manufacturers still use various strategies to deny, divert and divert when the problem of child slavery arises.
Modern slavery and the chocolate makers
After the practice was exposed in the 2000 documentary Slavery: a global investigation, the chocolate industry initially denied that trafficked children were involved in cocoa cultivation. In response, civil society groups in chocolate-consuming countries launched a campaign calling for the elimination of child slavery in the cocoa industry.
The campaign was particularly successful in the United States due to its unique history of slavery. He led a representative from the United States, Elliot Engel, to present legislation require chocolate companies in the United States to label their products “slave free” to show that there are no child slaves involved in their supply chains.
Chocolate companies responded first by hiring professional lobbyists to avoid approval of the “Slave Free” Legislation in the United States Senate due to the legal implications of such a label.
Subsequently, admitting that child slavery could exist in their supply chains, the companies took a different approach. They partnered with various stakeholders to create the Harkin-Engel protocol , which effectively stifled the 2000-2001 campaign. But this was a tactic.
The Harkin-Engel Protocol established six date-specific actions that were supposed to lead to the establishment of an industry-wide standard for product certification on July 1, 2005. However, the deadline was extended to 2008 and then 2010 After 2010, the protocol was basically abandoned.
After the missed deadline in 2005, some American activists went to court and sponsored former slaves to directly sue multinational chocolate companies. However, all hope of winning these cases was lost in June 2021, when the US Supreme Court. determined that companies like Nestlé and Cargill cannot be sued for child slavery in their supply chains.
The activists were at a distinct disadvantage compared to chocolate makers, not least because they did not fully understand the root causes of child slavery in cocoa farming in West Africa.
The issue of child slavery in cocoa farming in West Africa has been only superficially addressed in the literature. Surveys and survey-type studies have tried to determine the extent of child slavery (and child labor) in West African cocoa farming, but have failed to take into account its causes.
An example is a series of Field studies conducted by Tulane University to determine the prevalence of the worst forms of child labor in cocoa farming in Ghana and Ivory Coast.
Meanwhile, investigative reports and televised documentaries have merely painted a qualitative picture of the phenomenon. An example is the 2010 documentary The dark side of chocolate . This sought to provide visual evidence of child slavery in West African cocoa production. Representatives of the chocolate industry declined both requests for interviews and invitations to see the film.
The filmmaker, Miki Mistrati, broadcast the documentary on a big screen next to Nestlé’s headquarters in Switzerland, making it difficult for employees to avoid a glimpse of child slavery in the company’s supply chain.
Academics, journalists and filmmakers addressing the issue of child slavery in West African cocoa farming have so far not been involved in the history of cocoa farming and the evolution of the cocoa growing process.
Engaging properly with this story would help anti-child slavery activists understand exactly what they are fighting against. The conditions that created a demand for cheaper sources of labor in the past continue today, and no one understands them better than the multinational chocolate companies.
This has been the theme of my investigation.
These conditions arise from changes in the relationship between work and land necessary to continue growing cocoa. The availability of forest land is the deciding factor.
Cocoa farming once involved consecutive boom and bust phases, followed by a shift to a new forest area (production shift), a different product in the same area (diversification), or a different cocoa farming system that requires additional factors of production. Studies The cultivation of cocoa in West Africa has provided evidence that planters have migrated to new forests after depleting existing forest lands, leading to changes in production centers within and between countries.
However, access to new forest land is becoming increasingly difficult and much more labor is required to replant cocoa than to plant on pioneer forest soils.
This labor problem is particularly pronounced in cocoa growing areas that relied on migrant labor in the past (such as the Ivory Coast). Here, a reduction in migration over time, coupled with deforestation, has resulted in a jobs crisis: although post-forest cultivation requires more labor than pioneer planting, there is now less labor available. To continue growing cocoa, planters in these areas have turned to cheaper sources of labor, such as family members and children.
This change in labor relations appears to have led to an increase in child slave labor.
Chocolate producers like Mars and Nestlé are well aware of the labor problem in cocoa farming. Historically, this problem has led to diversification: when cocoa has become difficult to grow, planters have turned to other products. While such diversification can be good for farming communities, it is bad news for buyers of the raw material. This has led multinationals to intervene under the banner of sustainability to avoid diversification outside of cocoa. its “Sustainability” programs they are apparently designed to combat child labor, slavery or trafficking or labor. However, they are in fact productivity-boosting programs with symbolic anti-slavery components.
It is no longer enough to prove that child slavery exists in the cultivation of cocoa in West Africa. To have any chance of combating these practices, activists must invest time and effort to truly understand the processes and conditions that create them.