Sweet Dreams: The battle for the chocolate trade

Democracy Now! interviewed Free the Slaves founder Kevin Bales, a lifelong abolitionist and author of several pivotal works in the corpus of today’s anti-slavery literature, including Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy, and the recent The Slave Next Door: Human Trafficking and Slavery in America. He defined slavery for interviewer Amy Goodman as,

“One person completely controlling another one.  They use slavery to maintain that control.  They use that control to exploit them economically, and then they don’t pay them anything.  But the key is the violent control.”

To illustrate the astonishingly broad scope of the way slavery is exercised today, Bales gave a few examples:  Young African boys trafficked into the United States as part of a fraudulent charity scheme were paraded around American churches as a choir; work camps in Florida where unprotected migrant workers are forced to produce American agriculture.  And then there is the chocolate trade.

According to Bales, only about two or three percent of today’s cocoa “has slavery in it,” and therefore “simple responses like boycotts of products are actually counterproductive.”  Boycotts endanger the economic welfare of small, legitimate farmers in regions where slavery occurs (in this case, West Africa), leading to increased poverty and its correlating heightened risk for the trafficking of children and forced child labor.

So what else can be done?

Bales cites the Harkin-Engel Protocol as a flagship effort to transform industries that excessively involve children in labor or use slaves:

The way we’ve discovered that works best is actually to, instead of, say, attacking corporations and boycotting corporations, who don’t do the farming on the ground, who are actually just part of that system of production and distribution, but bringing them into the mix and getting them to pay for the work on the ground.  Now, we’ve done this with the chocolate industry to what I think is enormous success.  And about $50 million has been transferred out of chocolate company profits over the last seven years into work on the ground in West Africa to remove slavery and child labor from cocoa production.

Kevin Bales on the protocol

Journalist Christian Parenti, however, challenged Bales’ contention that West Africa’s chocolate industry and the protocol are sufficiently tackling the involvement of children in the industry.  In a scathingly critical letter, he calls the protocol a “toothless, voluntary, self-policing agreement created by the chocolate industry.”  Having investigated the situation in the Ivory Coast himself last year in a piece for Fortune magazine, Parenti argues that the initiative demonstrated by the International Cocoa Initiative, the NGO borne of the protocol and charged with carrying out the development goals of the agreement, has been abysmally inefficient.  The goal of his article was “to essentially fact-check the claims of the chocolate industry,” and he and partner Jessica Dimmock came away unimpressed with its efforts and seething at what they call false claims of success.

On Valentine’s Day in 2008, Goodman interviewed Parenti along with with William Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation, as part of a holiday special exposing the human rights issues behind the production of diamonds and chocolate.  (Co-host Juan Gonzalez revealed the obscene statistic that Valentine’s Day retail expenditures nationwide were expected to top $17 billion).

Guyton says of the Protocol:

Well, the Harkin-Engel protocol is something that has never been attempted before in any agricultural sector or any sector to speak of.  What we’re looking at doing is trying to improve conditions across two million small-scale farms in West Africa and to do this in a way that surveys are conducted in the field, through partnerships with the public sector and the private sector, as well as experts in labor.

Many of the children involved in the chocolate industry labor on family- or community-run farms in order to contribute to the income of desperate families.  The situation for poor farmers could be improved if they began to make more from their crops.  Part of the dissonance between Parenti’s and Guyton’s arguments comes from a stark disagreement about the nature of cocoa pricing.  While Guyton argues that “the world market price is determined on the global scale on commodity exchanges in New York and London,” Parenti comes back stating, “the cocoa industry is controlled by large corporations at the ports that set the price.”

At the end of the day, the kind of transformation required to eliminate harrowing and pervasive problems like child labor is long and arduous.  Perhaps it’s necessary to work with corporations rather than against them, considering the power that they wield.  Although Parenti is right in pointing out, after claiming that conglomerates like Cargill and ADM, along with those who buy from them like Nestle and Hershey, might have to forgo profits in order to make a real change,

And they don’t want to do that, because they’re in the business of making money.  They’re not in the business of developing Cote d’Ivoire and keeping children out of poverty.  That is fundamentally not what they’re about.

This is not necessarily a criticism of companies, as they are doing what they’re designed to do.  Perhaps the whole issue demands delving further into investigating the engine behind the designs themselves.

(images: Jessica Dimmock)

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