They say that rattlesnake tastes like chicken.
Ostrich meat, curiously, does not. Rather, it tastes like beef, so I am told.
So here’s the question for the coming weekend: What does child slavery taste like?
Turns out that child slavery tastes exactly like … chocolate.
Let me explain why.
Most of the chocolate in the world comes from West Africa, from countries like the Ivory Coast and Ghana. In those two very poor countries, the farmers who grow the cocoa beans are not paid very much for their crop. In order to bring in the harvest of cocoa beans, the farms find children to work the orchards. The parents may think that their children are being given a paying job. But in fact, the children are paid nothing, fed little, beaten often, forced to work from dawn to dusk in sweltering heat, allowed no sick time, and are often injured from the nature of the work.
Cocoa beans grow in big pods that have to be sliced off the trees with machetes. Then the pods have to be opened, again with a machete, and the beans stripped out and allowed to dry and ferment, before being bagged up into 100-pound sacks for shipping to distributors.
Much of this work is done by child slaves, many in their teens, but many younger than that, and some as young as five years old. These children are clearing the forests with chainsaws, climbing up into to trees with machetes to hack off pods, splitting the pods open in their bare hands with machetes, and carrying 100-pound sacks on their backs for up to twelve hours a day. They are exposed to pesticides and weed killers and other agricultural chemicals with no protection. They are frightfully skinny, fed meager portions of corn paste and bananas, scarred from the blades and scarred from whips and cudgels. They sleep on wooden planks in buildings with no windows—and no way to escape—and they are not provided sanitary toilets or clean water. Some of them have been trafficked by slave traders into the farms from other countries in Africa. They grow up without their families, without an education, without hope for any kind of future except grinding poverty, sickness, and misery.
When the knowledge of child slavery in the chocolate industry broke out in the late 1990s, the big candy companies in America—Hershey, Nestlé, Mars, Kraft (aka Mondelēz)—claimed that they were shocked! shocked!! SHOCKED!!! to discover this was going on. Funny how all those high-powered CEOs with MBAs from the top schools in the country never got around to asking themselves the question: How is it that we can sell for less than a dollar a huge block of product imported all the way from around the world … and still make fat profits doing it? Someone it never occurred to them that for their most lucrative brand names—KitKats and MilkyWay, Snickers and M&Ms and Butterfinger—the price was unusually low, compared to other kinds of agricultural products from another hemisphere.
In 2001, with mounting pressure from Congress, the heads of Big Chocolate made a voluntary agreement (the Harkins-Engel Protocol) to put measures in place to reduce the use of child slaves by their suppliers. They did this to keep a bill from going to a vote that would have allowed a label of “slave-free” for chocolate products that were ethically produced—a label that would NOT be found on most of the candies made by Big Chocolate. So Mars and Nestle and Hershey and Cadbury said: let us handle the problem, don’t pass any legislation. Congress agreed, through the persuasion of their former colleagues-turned-lobbyists, Bob Dole and George Mitchell. However, the chocolate companies have been rather secretive about how exactly they are implementing these changes. Ten and fifteen years later, investigators are not finding much meaningful progress in the reduction of child slavery on the cocoa bean farms of West Africa. It remains a terrible, terrible problem.
Cheap chocolate—slave-made chocolate—shows up in so many ways in the American diet. Big corporations make so much money off their cheap chocolate in our cereals, our fancy Starbucks Frappuccinos, our ice cream bars, and our Oreo cookies. In order to avoid the bad name that they deserve for their indifference to human suffering, they throw a few bucks around here or there—build a school, dig a well, whatever. They spend a million while they rake in billions upon billions off the sweat and blood of children.
Unfortunately, the mainstream media—not wanting to offend its big buyers of advertising—fails to shine the light of attention on this shameful problem. We should all know about how we personally are making child slavery profitable, but that knowledge is willfully withheld from us.
With the coming weekend in the United States, many Americans will be celebrating Independence Day. This means a lot of backyard barbecues, a lot of roasted marshmallows, and a lot of S’mores—that tasty sandwich of graham crackers, marshmallows, and chocolate. I won’t be having a S’mores this weekend, and when I decline, I plan to say why. My object is not to rain on anyone’s party, but to raise awareness of how we are all unwittingly made accomplices to a great evil. Celebrating one’s independence (such as it is) should not come at the cost of another’s slavery.
I know full well that questions like these are vexed by the corruption of local governments, the complexity of world economics, and the challenge of sorting out good information from disinformation. I cannot say that boycotting Big Chocolate would make things better for the child slaves of West Africa. Even so, I can longer bring to my lips a foodstuff that I know to be tainted with cruelty towards a child. (Or an animal … but that’s a post for another day.)
A portion of the world’s chocolate supply is grown in South America. Most of the organic chocolate comes from South America, and there is no record of slavery or child labor being used in the South American chocolate industry. This is not a blanket endorsement, but if you absolutely need your Fourth of July S’mores, the slave-free solution is available, albeit expensive. If you want to find ethical chocolate, there are websites dedicated to that information, like this or this.
One of the child slaves interviewed in West Africa said, “When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.” The next time you take a bite of a Snickers bar, ask yourself if it really satisfies you to ingest such exquisite human suffering.
PS—This meditation arose from hearing a comedy routine by Michael Connell, Stoic and comedian. This is a shout-out to him, with gratitude.