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Not So Sweet: The Dark History of Chocolate

By Cocoa Runners  ·  5th September 2021  ·  Ethics

Chocolate has established itself as a staple commodity in our lives; transforming from an inaccessible, handmade luxury to an overabundant result of mass production. The worldwide commodification of chocolate and our quest for the cheapest price, however, perpetuate the problems that persist from chocolate’s colonial history over the last 500 years.

Colonial Commodities

As the process of picking and processing cacao was (and is) labour intensive, the Spanish who first ‘discovered’ chocolate used the ‘encomienda’ system in the American colonies to keep up the supply. In this system, a Spanish conquistador was granted legal rights to native labour; the labourers were protected from warring tribes and were taught Catholicism in exchange for their work.

Although the system was intended to be a peaceful and mutually beneficial relationship, it was ruthlessly exploited by the Spaniards who treated the natives cruelly and forced them into hard labour.

On top of that, masses of native populations were decimated by the diseases the Europeans brought from the Old World: It is thought that up to 90% of the people’s living in Central America were killed by this route.

The Transatlanic

However, the rise of chocolate’s status to a highly coveted drink by the elite across European society in the mid-to-late 17th century led to an explosion in demand for cacao, and colonial powers dealt with the shortage of native-labour by turning to a system of slavery.

While the production of chocolate remained in Central America, the labour shifted to enslaved Africans who were brought over to America in vast numbers to work on plantations. The transatlantic trade also spread cacao from Mesoamerica throughout the New Worlds, Southeast Asia, and West and Central Africa in the 17th century as European powers sought to increase the supply of chocolate by spreading cacao plantations to their colonies.

Industrial innovations like the cocoa press and the conching machine in the 1800s made the mass production of chocolate possible. It was no longer an expensive luxury reserved for the elite, but an inexpensive drink or a bar to be consumed by everyone. Brands were built promising “affordable” luxury for everyone, and as demand rose, cacao became established as a ‘commodity crop’.

Yet, at the same time in the early 1800s, the abolition of slavery was slowly and gradually taking place. As this occurred, European powers worked to increase cacao production by moving production to places that had a similar climate to Mesoamerica with cheap labour sources.

The Portuguese colony of São Tomé and Príncipe; nicknamed the ‘Chocolate Islands’; became the biggest producer of cacao in the world during the early 1900s. Between 20,000-40,000 labourers worked on about 230 plantations on São Tomé and 3,000 on 50 plantations on Príncipe. Although slavery had been abolished, the exploitative practice of ‘indentured servitude’ continued. Workers were technically free to return to their homes at the end of their contracts, but very few were able to. The death rate was an estimated 20% per year, and wages were often held back.

It was slavery in a different packaging.

The Cadbury chocolate company, one of Britain’s main chocolate providers, was caught up in a scandal when it was discovered that they were importing about 55% of their cocoa from these islands. While presenting themselves as a company committed to Quaker principles of equality in labour and ending slavery in any form, over half of the chocolate made in their factories was made from cocoa grown in plantations using slave labour.

As a result of this, cacao cultivation for most chocolate companies shifted onto the Gold Coast (what would later become Ghana and Ivory Coast) as it was determined to have better labour conditions and higher quality cocoa.

Slavery is Still Here

Cocoa’s colonial history and commodification have had a long-lasting economic, environmental, and cultural impact on the world.

At least 70% of the world’s cacao is produced in West and Central Africa, where it makes up over half of some nations’ GDP. Even today, exploitation in the cacao industry runs rampant, with human rights abuses, structural poverty, low pay, and child labour.

In the place of imperial traders, it’s a small number of chocolate companies (The ‘Big Five’- Cadbury, Ferrero, Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé) that dominate the production of chocolate. Recent journalistic exposés have resulted in these companies acknowledging their use of child slaves, yet there is a long way to go: the U.S Supreme Court recently blocked a child slavery lawsuit against Big Chocolate.

The Case for Direct Trade and Craft Chocolate

There have been a number of initiatives and certification schemes (e.g. Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified, IMO Fair For Life) to address these issues systematically, but this only accounts for a tiny fraction of the chocolate we consume. The core issue lies in our view of chocolate as a cheap, commodity product. 

At Cocoa Runners, we want you to value your craft chocolate. We don’t want you to think about chocolate as a commodity ingredient. We want you to savour craft bars.  And we want you to think about the farmers and rainforests where the chocolate comes from.

There are a number of potential positive impacts of the craft chocolate movement that emerging research suggests. Farmers are paid fair wages for high-quality cacao that has been carefully harvested, fermented, and dried.

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