The Politics of Chocolate

East Bay chocolate makers like John Scharffenberger are having to answer for the sins of West African cocoa farmers

Last summer, a graduate student from MIT named Steven Millman sent a letter to the popular Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker in Berkeley and asked company executives whether they purchased cocoa beans from Western Africa. International labor groups, Millman explained, had recently flagged the area as a hot spot for child slavery, and media reports described how farmers inside Ivory Coast and the tiny countries surrounding it were enslaving children to harvest the world’s supply of chocolate, a delectable enjoyed mostly by Europeans and Americans. The response from Scharffen Berger’s office at 914 Heinz Avenue was quick in coming: “Basically,” wrote customer service manager Brian Bageant in an e-mail dated June 25, “we just don’t buy beans from that part of Africa.”

While it’s true that Scharffen Berger, which will make 400,000 pounds of chocolate this year, does not do business with the targeted countries, it purchases twenty percent of its beans from Ghana, a country that borders the Ivory Coast. In recent years the Ghanaian government has received praise from cocoa purchasers for policing its farms to ensure that indentured child labor is not employed, yet it is not immune from the stigma of the region; a 1999 United Nations report from the Commission of Human Rights, for instance, told of young Ghanaian boys rounded up at bus stations by smooth-talking salesmen promising a king’s wages for work, who were then smuggled onto cocoa farms in neighboring countries as indentured slaves.

Of the dozen largest American chocolate makers, four are either headquartered, or have major plants, in the East Bay: Bloomer, North America’s largest purchaser of cocoa; Guittard, which supplies See’s candies; Ghirardelli; and Scharffen Berger. All purchase beans from Western Africa, which supplies nearly half of all the chocolate manufactured in the US, and all have recently been forced to deal with anguished questions from consumers who wanted to know if their purchase of a gooey truffle was contributing to the suffering of twelve-year-old boys.

Stories about child slavery in West African cocoa farms began in earnest last year when a BBC documentary, Slavery, described how farmers in the Ivory Coast herded thousands of teenage boys onto cocoa plantations to pick beans. Slavery reported that the boys, aged twelve to eighteen, were lured in by traffickers and handed over to farmers for 38 US dollars a head. Only after a year of working twelve hours a day, six days a week, were the boys able to pay back the $38, and then start earning a wage for themselves. (Some boys complained that payday never arrived; the farmers, who usually own small two- and three-acre plots, claimed they’d pay the “next month.”) Despite the low — or nonexistent — wages, few of the boys were able to leave the farms, either because they kept hoping for payment, feared the violent beatings reserved for escapees, or simply didn’t know the way home.

Response to the documentary was swift. The International Labor Organization and a nonprofit named Free the Slaves jumped the America chocolate industry. A call for a boycott was sounded. In the months after the BBC story aired, scribes from Knight-Ridder and the New York Times raced to catch up with the story; a typical angle appeared one Saturday morning last summer in the Contra Costa Times: “There may be a hidden ingredient in the chocolate cake you baked, the candy bars your children sold for their fund-raiser, or that fudge-ripple ice cream cone you enjoyed on Saturday afternoon. Slave labor.” A recent New York Times Magazine article, which detailed a boy’s journey from Mali to the cocoa fields of the Ivory Coast, ran under the headline “Is This Man a Slave?”

All of this media coverage, complains the Chocolate Manufacturers Association, has distorted the severity of the problem by focusing on gruesome tales emanating from just four small farms — in a region containing nearly 600,000. Susan Smith, a spokesperson for the industry group, says the reportage has been heavy in judgment, but light on perspective. “The stories were totally uncharacteristic of cocoa growing. In that part of the world, kids over fourteen have to work, especially during harvest time. That’s something that’s legal, not condemned.”

The CMA argued that a boycott of its products — a tactic used by consumers of athletic shoes (Southeast Asia), rugs (Persia, Central Asia), and fireworks (China) — would only hurt West African field workers rather than help them. If fewer people eat chocolate and the price of cocoa drops — and it is already suffering from a two-year decline — farmers will have even less money to pay for labor.

Still, even the CMA was forced to admit that it is difficult to accurately determine how pervasive the problem of slavery truly is — or even if it is a problem at all. In an effort to find more definitive answers, it announced it would put up $1 million to finance a survey of working conditions on a sample of 3,000 farms. “These surveys will give us the information needed to combat this challenge without possibly destroying the livelihood of the 99 percent of farmers not taking part in this kind of activity,” wrote Gary Guittard, then CMA’s president, in an e-mail to industry employees.

Though the boycott effort never really took root, the CMA soon felt it had to fend off another challenge: In August, Congressman Eliot Engel (D-Bronx) introduced legislation calling for “slave free” labels on chocolate products and rallied his colleagues to pass it 291-115. Before the bill had a chance to reach the Senate, however, the CMA hired former senators Bob Dole and George Mitchell as lobbyists, and signed an agreement with congressmen and labor-rights activists promising to “eliminate child labor in cocoa growing” by the year 2005 — far from fast enough for activists like Steven Millman who calls the CMA agreement “repugnant to the human spirit.” “Four years is an eternity of suffering for a young child in bondage who has no idea liberation may be coming,” he argues.

Meanwhile, small chocolate execs like Cal grad John Scharffenberger continue to struggle with the controversy — and with some real uncertainty about the origins of his product. While Scharffenberger, who also imports from Venezuela and Madagascar, has confidence in his beans from Ghana, he, like all manufacturers, deals with a broker, who in turn deals with farmers certified by a government-regulated cocoa board. In the end, therefore, Scharffenberger must rely on the word of Ghanaian government officials for information about where his product came from, and under what conditions it was picked.

“The Ghanese have the best standards in the region. That’s not to say they’re as good as we want them to be, but they’re certainly not as bad as the Cocircte d’Ivoire,” Scharffenberger says. “From what we know about the government, we’re pretty satisfied they aren’t allowing horrible things to happen.”

For Scharffenberger, who is not a member of the CMA, keeping track of how his product is produced in faraway markets will always be a delicate balancing act. (“Now we’re keeping an eye on Chavez,” he sighs, referring to the Venezuelan president who is currently staving off a revolt.) Ultimately, the solution to the problem of enslavement is economic, suggests Scharffenberger, who routinely agrees to pay as much as double the market rate for his beans. “In Third World politics,” he says, “it’s about being able to encourage people to let them do their own thing — giving growers a lot of money for the product, so they can get rich and can send their kids to school, then become educated. Then, they can make informed decisions.

“It isn’t like we’re trying to be the ‘conscious chocolate’; we’re just trying to make wise choices about where we get our beans.”

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