Easter is just around the corner, and I think it’s safe to sat that for many of us, that means chocolate eggs, a hollow chocolate bunny, and well…just plain chocolate. Like me, you may have noticed certain chocolates are boasting a “fair trade” label. I’ve been wondering: what does it mean for chocolate to be fair trade? Is it all that important for me to choose fair trade chocolate?
Turns out the chocolate industry, for selling us something so sweet and delicious, can be pretty cruel to the people who harvest those cacao beans. The biggest cocoa-producing countries are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Brazil and Cameroon. The people who harvest the cacao are often children from nearby, even more destitute countries, whose parents sell them into the industry hoping they’ll find fair work.
In 2000, the U.S. State Department estimated that 15,000 kids, from ages nine to 12, were sold into forced labor on cotton, coffee, or cacao plantations in the North Ivory Coast. Another study, from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture, reports that around 284,000 kids working on cacao farms do so in hazardous conditions.
The children harvest the cacao beans from high branches, often with machetes. They then split open the pods and meticulously scoop out the tiny beans. Four hundred pods are needed to make just one pound of chocolate — something most of these children, in a cruel and ironic twist of fate, have never tasted. Work can last from 6:00 am to 6:30 pm, so it goes without saying that these kids don’t have time, let alone the money, for school. They’re trapped in a life of hard labor, and without education or fair wages, there’s no escape.
Child labor and hard, dangerous working conditions stem from the fact that cacao plantation farmers are paid so very little. On average, the annual household income in cocoa revenue is just 30 to 110 dollars. This isn’t even enough to supply basic needs: in the case of at least one village in Ghana, they don’t have their own water supply because they can’t afford a pump.
Many of these plantations are family farms — the farmers are not educated, and the community’s only cash crop is cocoa. They’re at the mercy of the market and taken advantage of by middlemen. And though chocolate is a 13 billion dollar industry with only two firms dominating the majority of the market — Hershey and M&M/Mars — these two powerhouses claim they’re unable to fix the problems on the West African cacao plantations that serve as the building block for their products. Surely these gigantic corporations have the power to make changes in their supply chains.
The stories of the African plantations and the child laborers in the cocoa industry are emerging and after several news stories and even government threats, the chocolate industry developed a plan to improve conditions on the cacao plantations. However, there is still no guarantee of fair wages for farmers or stable, sufficient prices for cocoa. Therefore, there’s no guarantee that child labor won’t be used to harvest the cacao beans, or that farmers and their communities will be fairly compensated for their contributions to the billion-dollar industry that the rest of the world sees as a mere sweet indulgence.
To stand up against the problems within the cocoa industry, choose fair trade cocoa and chocolate, which will have the “Fair Trade Certified” or Fair Trade Federation label. Luckily, these labels are becoming more and more prominent in grocery stores and confectioneries. Fair Trade means that a guaranteed minimum price for the cocoa paid under direct contracts has been set, there is no abusive child labor, and the plantations promote environmental sustainability. And all of this is monitored.
More and more companies are hopping on the fair trade bandwagon, including big names like Kit Kat, Cadbury and Starbucks. For a list of companies and their products recognized by the Fair Trade Federation, click here. If you’re looking for some chocolate that is kind to people and animals, Allison’s Gourmet and Sjaak’s both make vegan, organic, fair trade chocolate. Allison’s Gourmet also has organic, fair trade coffees. And according to the Endangered Species Chocolate website, they are “100% ethically traded.”
This Easter, and whenever you’re feeling that sweet tooth, please choose fair-trade chocolate. And if you’re thinking that live animals, like a chick or bunny, would make a good Easter morning surprise, please choose chocolate instead. Besides, now that chocolate is officially good for you, you have even more reason to indulge. Just make sure it’s fair trade.
SUPPORT FAIR TRADE:
You can support the fair trade industry and take a stand against unfair wages and child labor in West Africa by signing this pledge to choose fair trade chocolate.
photo credit: thanks to babasteve via flickr
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