Ain’t Gonna Study S’mores No More

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.

MR

PS—This meditation arose from hearing a comedy routine by Michael Connell, Stoic and comedian.  This is a shout-out to him, with gratitude.

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15 Responses to Ain’t Gonna Study S’mores No More

  1. Kmatt says:

    I am writing this from the perspective of an American. We are discussing Independence Day after all.

    Ultimately, in the West, we are all consumers and thus exploiters. Unless you, yourself, grew it, built it, etc, then you are exploiting someone else’s labor. Pet causes like the one sited above are interesting. They are simply a way to make us feel better about ourselves. They allow us to pat ourselves on the back and feel a little less guilty while we drive past 10 homeless people on the way to Wholefoods to buy some organic produce and sulfate free soap.

    I do wonder, though, why someone who might believe Phil McGraw and Freddie Mercury are one in the same would believe in slave-free chocolate. Have you seen this slave-free cocoa bean farm firsthand? Actually visited it in person? Rigorously audited its finances? Why believe a website’s claim that what it sells is truly what it purports it to be? If I were a billionaire chocolate magnate, I would control all chocolate from the cheapest to the most expensive. I would form a sub corporation, call it slave-free chocolate, and market it to the conscious consumer, convincing them to feel good while they pay me for my product. After all, one of the best ways to take advantage of consumers is via guilt.

    The fact of the matter is we are all slaves in one form or another. Some of us just live in fancier cages. However, if you have $5 to spend on a chocolate bar, then your life is likely better than most.

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    • I am the one who maintains, supported by evidence, that Freddie became Phil. Maarten has no part in that.

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      • Don’t feed the troll, Mark. Its comment makes no sense. “How can someone gullible enough to believe that celebrities fake their death also believe that some chocolate is slave-free?” See?—it’s an illogical insult. One “gullibility” should imply the other, not vice versa, as it questions.

        Also, for an “American,” its command of English is poor. “One IN the same”?? “Sited” for cited? “Wholefoods” for Whole Foods? (And I have yet to see a Whole Foods located in a part of town where there are ten homeless people to pass to get inside.)

        The whole consumer=exploiter rant is idiocy. And if it had any validity, it would apply equally to people in the East as well as the West, including slaves, of course.

        The upshot of the troll’s remark is that since we are all slaves, we can in good conscience remain indifferent to the plight of our fellow slaves. Do nothing, since if you do something, it is just to assuage your guilt.

        Sounds exactly like the case a billionaire chocolate magnate would want to make! Begone, troll! Back up the Hershey Highway with you!

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        • I remember a PBS special years ago about female circumcision featuring a nice looking woman who was supposedly the victim of it in her native Africa, being interviewed by an older white woman. The climax of the program was the latter’s statement, “we can all agree that the West is to blame…”

          I remember trying to figure out what the “West” could do about it that wouldn’t be wrong, and coming up with nothing.

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        • I was just distancing you from my work, as I know it is controversial.

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  2. Dave says:

    Thanks for this and I will now reexamine my buying strategy .
    I now buy high quality yet relatively inexpensive choc. from Aldi market
    Moser Roth , imported from Germany .
    I’m now thinking that cocoa must come from Africa not S. America .
    I will ask questions and if changing to marked FairTrade alternates be better .
    Do they have to say S. America as the enforcement for Africa is unreliable ?

    ok not seeing that on the list here so , making a change .
    Although I have gotten this (Choceur & Moser Roth !!!!Ghana!!!! found at Aldi’s)
    I do not see it in the store always , and it was awesome.

    http://www.foodispower.org/chocolate-list/

    Like

  3. fm says:

    If I were a billionaire chocolate magnate, I would control all chocolate from the cheapest to the most expensive. I would form a sub corporation, call it slave-free chocolate, and market it to the conscious consumer, convincing them to feel good while they pay me for my product. After all, one of the best ways to take advantage of consumers is via guilt.

    An insightful thought. The “guilt-free, fair-trade” business is in full gears for a few years now, here in Europe.
    But strangely, when reading this lines, Poroshenko comes to my mind, the Ukrainian president who owns a chocolate business …

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  4. annspinwall4 says:

    Maarten, thanks for this very enlightening article. I was completely unaware of the farming practices for cocoa beans and had no idea it exploited and made slaves of children….shame on me!

    Like

  5. calgacus says:

    Osho was right when he said that the children are the most exploited class of people (and it goes beyond child labor). The situation in many of these chocolate countries is connected to engineered conflicts that made these countries cheap plantations.

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  6. steve kelly says:

    And what is chocolate without sugar. And we all know the story of sugar and slaves from Africa.

    Kallari is a chocolate I know first-hand (5 years ago at least). Kichwa have said no to oil drilling, and are making a go of tourism and chocolate — so far as I know, today.https://munchies.vice.com/en_us/article/aead55/this-chocolate-collective-is-giving-families-hope-in-the-amazon-rainforest

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  7. Cacao, Coffee, whatever. Yes the wages are crap, the farmers profits are crap. The distributors rule the roost. I grow some fine organic fruit. No market. But my friends and neighbors at least appreciate the efforts. Best way to stick it to da man. Someday, maybe we will be appreciated but if not, at least we can have the best. Beats the heck out of old yellens 1% any way you slice it. The universe frowns on theft as matter of public policy. out.

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  8. tyronemccloskey says:

    Thank gawd I don’t have a sweet tooth and coffee makes me disassemble into a quivering puddle of mortal terror. Please tell me beer is slave free as I have no intention of quitting beer.
    That said, governments work hand in hand with stimulant suppliers the world over to keep us sedate. I’m sure the mushroom industry of the ancients had the same approach to labor and the succeeding wine industry as well. But they never pretended to think all men were created equal. Which makes me wonder if the masonic cabals that surely have a hand in these slave industries see some “moral” underpinning to this enforced misery. Their morals and dogmas rationalize everything else so I suspect this is all part of some sort of grand ledger to balance their hoo haw design of the cosmos. As William F Buckley, Knight of Malta, once observed about sensual pleasures, one needs first hand knowledge of what one is being saved from, or words to that effect. Deep down I think these guys are getting off on the thrill of vicarious suffering. Huxley’s character study, Grey Eminence, illustrates just how addictive such a thing can be and the devastating consequences of it.

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  9. fm says:

    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?

    A small correction from my side:
    Looking closer at the ingredients of their products, you use to see sugar at the first place. Often with other sugar variants as well. That means, there is hardly much cocoa involved, at least much less than one would believe. And sugar can be made cheaply from a great variety of local resources …
    I use to eat “bitter chocolate” occasionally, with >70% cocoa, which costs about 250 to 300% of the “normal” chocolates.
    So much for the margin …

    Like

  10. Joki says:

    While it’s absolutely true that virtually every product on the shelves, world-wide, is the result of an exploitation of someone, still our conscience has to start somewhere, no?

    What matter if there are any number of other indignities or exploitations going on? One doesn’t let a burglar go free because there are murderers out there. You deal with what’s in front of you, or I should say with what your conscience brings to the fore, first. For you, at this particular time, it’s your knowledge of the exploitation of children in the chocolate production industry. For someone else maybe it’s the astounding number of quite harmful chemicals in the cleaning products around their house, etc.

    So you stop eating chocolate while someone else switches to cleaning with vinegar and lemons. Neither of those acts implies in any way that either of you is explicitly endorsing some other form of exploitation or greed or anything of the sort.

    There is justice on this earth. But it isn’t a universal concept. It’s not something that exists outside you, that you can just summon when you need it. The universe’s idea of “justice” is that there is no black without white, or dark without light, which taken to the extreme only leads to a complete moral breakdown where nothing is right or wrong and anything is “justifiable”.

    You’re responsible for you and your actions, so take your stand where you like. Plant your feet and make your life and actions as just as you’re able. It isn’t a “one and done” thing. It’s a constant daily process. Figure out what your version of “moral” is and run with it. I’ll do the same. It’s the accumulation of these individual morals that builds what we call society, and it’s a zero-sum exercise. What type of society is created is a direct result of the sum of the moral values of those in that society, but you can only exert control over your individual self, and in that way influence the “group self” that results from the merging of individuals into a whole.

    Sorry for the rant, or sermon. This was mostly a response to the first commenter’s logical fallacy. Even though it was already addressed I felt the need to expand on things a bit. Cheers. 🙂

    Like

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