A few years ago, a friend of mine stopped eating chocolate. It was a moral decision, an ethical one. Not only did he resist the lure of the office vending machine, he would demur if you offered him some of your chocolate unless it was fair trade. I admired his conviction.
Recently, when I told him I was reading Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, he looked worried. He thought the chocolate problem was a thing of the past. It's true; after being under the spotlight at the millennium, the issue of slave labour in cocoa was back in the shadows. Consumer awareness was up, legislative initiatives were afoot, and everything seemed to be resolved. My friend went back to eating chocolate.
Carol Off still isn't convinced that all is right on cocoa plantations. The journalist, best known for her work with the CBC, had heard reports that Côte D'Ivoire's chocolate-covered success stories hid terrible conditions of child labour. As she investigated she discovered toothless laws, self-policing industry, corporate-funded non-governmental organizations (NGOs), the disappearance of a journalist, fiction posing as news, and kids who still think a few months of cocoa farming will earn them enough money to buy themselves a bicycle and ride it home again.
The history of chocolate is laced with blood. Off outlines how cocoa came to the Western world, from la noche triste ("cocoa production survived because it was —literally— money growing on trees") to chocolate's medicinal uses to the marketing of chocolate as a token of romantic love.
Off also reminds us that the latest slavery controversy is hardly cocoa's first. In the early days of mass production, Quakers dominated both the British and the American cocoa industry. Cadbury in the UK, and Hershey in the US were both family-run businesses that professed to uphold their religious moral standards as part of their business practices.
Both companies formed idyllic company towns: Bournville, on the south side of Birmingham, England, and Hershey, Pennsylvania. The Quakers were well-known abolitionists, but when Henry Nevison reported on the slave-like conditions endured by the cocoa industry's "contract labour," Cadbury (a Quaker company) did nothing - at least not at first.
A number of contemporary scholars... have concluded that it was the lack of alternative bean sources and not skepticism over Nevison's report that made the Cadburys delay action for so long. The appalling corollary is that the Quaker cocoa companies of Britain dragged their feet and dodged the issue for nine years before they finally stopped using slave cocoa.
Some estimates say that up to eight million Aricans died under the "contract labour" conditions of the turn of the century.