Friday, March 18, 2011

Book Review: "Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the dark side of the world's most seductive sweet" by Carol Off

"Low prices are what consumers consider fair,
even if their affordable goods create injustice elsewhere."

If, after reading this book, you're still either not turned off by chocolate or you don't  hesitate before you bite into that chocolate bar or cake, then you're either very short on empathy, you don't care, or you are in denial about the plight of your fellow humans... which makes you human after all, unfortunately.
Bitter Chocolate begins by retracing the history of cocoa (referred to as chocolate soon after Europeans,  during the Industrial Revolution, devised methods for removing the cocoa butter from the beans and adulterating what was left with milk and sweeteners) from Mayan and Aztec lore, to Hernan Cortes' conquest of Montezuma II and to the subsequent introduction of cocoa to Europe. The book moves on to the introduction of cocoa to the ideal growing environment of equatorial Central Western Africa (Ivory Coast, Ghana). All throughout this time, up to the present time, racial inequalities, social exploitation, and environmental degradation have been part of the cocoa bean's journey from being inside a pod on the cocoa tree to a tin-foil-wrapped goodie for Easter. It is a history of avarice and greed, first by European nations, then by multinationals abetted by their mother countries.
The trade in cocoa is both a catalyst and a cause for human suffering and death: the mass extermination of Mayan and Aztec populations, slavery.  The bittersweet story of cocoa/chocolate is an ongoing story.

I was unaware of the truth behind chocolate... I feel duty bound to spread what I've learned. Herewith are the book's revelations:
 - the Aztecs valued cocoa more than they valued gold; they hoarded their cocoa, but they gave away their gold.
 - since the mid-1500's, cocoa was deemed a currency, its value going up as precious metals went down. Huge swaths of the New World, along with its native labourers, were needed to feed Europe's taste for chocolate. Millions of people died along the way, decimating up to ninety percent of populations in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize.
 - when European demand overwhelmed the production capacity of Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, plantations were started in neighbouring countries and the Caribbean, necessitating and exacerbating the existing slave trade in Africans. These plantations included sugar cane plantations, sugar being as necessary to a chocolate bar as cocoa is.
 - with the full knowledge of the chocolate barons, e.g., Cadburys, and Europe, the Portuguese were employing slave labour on the West African islands of Sao Tome and Principe, up to  the early 1900's, decades after the formal abolition of slavery(1840's) in the U.S. 
 - to this day, a huge, untold number of people grow cocoa under virtual slave conditions in West Africa and elsewhere. Slavery in other forms continued with the "indentured servants" or coolies imported to the Caribbean from Asia (a half-million East Indians to Trinidad and Jamaica, a million from China), Angolans and Chinese were imported into the Transvaal area of South Africa (to work the diamond mines).
 - the price of a supermarket-bought chocolate bar, circa 2005, is $1.00 Canadian, roughly equivalent to 500 West African francs, a staggering amount for such a small treat - enough to buy a fat chicken or an entire bag of rice... it represents the value of one boy's work over three days, assuming this boy is paid at all. Even the elders in some villages in Africa have never tasted chocolate as we know it. All they know is that the beans go to Europe and America.
 - indentured labour, slavery by another name, is the state of child workers in the Ivory Coast, some as young as nine. In the pursuit of ever lower labour cost, "slavery" is the last resort. Brutal work conditions, maltreatment, and the absence of safe labour practices are the norm.
 - the farmer who hires child labour, is just as exploited as the little people who work under him. Cocoa riches go to the middlemen, government officials, and the multinationals.
 - the world's best-known chocolatiers were family-run enterprises such as Van Houten (Dutch), Cadbury and Rowntree (English), Hershey and Mars (American), and Nestle (Swiss), all have had, and continue to be involved in the procurement of cocoa with the full knowledge of how cocoa is obtained. 
 - the chocolate business "has shifted from family-run enterprises to corporations and multinational conglomerates". "The dirty work of buying and selling cocoa beans has become the domain of giant s such as Cargill and Archer Daniel Midlands."
 - "Cargill's multi-billion dollar turnover rivals the GDP of all of the poorest sub-Saharan countries put together. Like al transnationals in agriculture, Cargill has helped to persuade countries to abandon food production in favour of export crops, with help from World Bank liberalization schemes that strong arm developing countries into importing food, principally from transnationals. Cargill's trade in coffee alone is greater than the aggregate GDP of the countries where it buys the coffee. It is one of the world's biggest players in genetically modified foods, and it is fighting strenously to open African farmland to its scientifically-produced seed stock".
 - "Archie Daniels Midland (ADM)... is second only to Cargill in Ivorian cocoa trading. ADM is the largest processor of cocoa beans in the world, manufacturing much or the raw material that becomes the brand name chocolate confections we eat. What ADM does best, though, is play politics. This publicly traded company has been one of the largest recipient of corporate welfare in the U.S., much of it through personal suasion in the corridors of power. Fortune magazine once called agribusiness the most manipulated industry in the planet, and few play the game better than ADM".
 - the problems in present day Ivory Coast, as well as it's neighbours in Central Africa can be traced directly to the applications of European decisions on Africans. Ivory Coast had the French and colonizers will invariably pursue its own selfish interests, never mind the dire consequences to the locals. The unseen hand of the French puppeteers, in synchrony with the multinationals and sympathetic or otherwise naive media, create an atmosphere where the goods (cocoa, oil) must be obtained at the lowest price for sale at whatever the market will bear.
 - Former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, whose Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement profitted U.S. companies such as Archie Daniels Midland (ADM), sits on the company's board of directors.
 - the current Ivorian presidential stalemate, the child soldiers, the civil war, and the corruption can ALL be linked to the manipulation of  local issues by the "internationals'.

The current awareness and interest in organic and sustainable agricultural practices has led to a resurgent interest in growing cocoa in its Mayan birthplace with mixed results. Local and well-meaning foreigners have started co-ops employing small plots, organic-certified produce, and an economic infrastructure to shield it from the speculators who deal in commodities and "futures".

Here's a cautionary tale when the selfish interests of the multinationals collide (bowl-over) the local interests.
The Mayans have grown cocoa for thousands of years; they know a thing or two about how to do it. Unfortunately for the consumers of this world, they employed slowpoke farming methods, limited to local consumption, the trees growing in harmony with its environment. So here's what American corporations (Hershey) convinced the Belize government to do:
The "experts" convinced the Mayans that their centuries-old growing practices could be improved by science. Hershey supplied a hybrid tree to be grown in a monoculture with the trees close to each other (no shade trees and other symbiotic organisms). The "vigor" of these trees depend wholly on the "vigorous" application of fertilizers and pesticides. Prices of cocoa were high and the local farmers were encouraged to listen to Hershey; to "invest" in their future.
But the locals (Mayans) have no money; they didn't even own the their land as the Mayans have always practiced communal ownership. The Belizean government solved this by allowing ownership of the land. With financial incentices from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), an admitted "instrument of political and economic influence wherever U.S. interests lie", Belizean farmers were encouraged to borrow huge amounts of money to "invest" in growing cocoa. This "apparent corporate and government commitment to Belizean farmers" guaranteed to pay the market price for the cocoa beans, this at a time when worldwide demand for chocolate was at an all-time high.
(But nobody told the farmers that pricing based on the natural law of supply-and-demand don't apply to cocoa; the market is extremely manipulated to benefit the multinationals)
In return for this promised "bonanza" here is what the farmers had to do:
  - borrow-a lot!
 - offer as collateral their recently "purchased" land (that they have always communally-owned anyways),
  - take out "crop loans" using as collateral and security their other collective farming operations, such as rice,
  - borrow more money to "invest" in more land to grow cocoa,
(All these for a staggering twelve percent interest; but apparently consistent with international lending rates :-()
In order to  accelerate cocoa production, toxic herbicides such as Paraquat and Roundup, to mention just two, were employed. Soil and waterways were polluted with pesticides and nitrates from fertilizers.
And then the market price fell!
It made no sense for the farmers to even harvest the crops... but they still owed money to the banks and the multinationals (USAID had since walked away). The Maya left the land in search for work, picking citrus or sugar cane, to finance their debts
note: this is not a new story... replace cocoa/Mayans with rice/Burmese, or coffee/Brazil, and the result is the same.

There have been heroic crusaders for fairness and justice in the industry but there is a wall of injustice  that cannot be breached: "the ethical insensitivity of the marketplace". 

"The greatest impediment of all
is the moral ambiguity 
of a consuming public that
has always been quick to decry injustice,
but determined to enjoy the fruits of the earth
at the lowest price possible"

All quotes are directly from the book.
All the information presented have been gleaned from her book.
If you only read 20 books in your lifetime, this book should be in this list of 20.

Another note-worthy read:


  1. I object to some of the quotations from this book.

    And the fact that they are taken as read by the author of this blog - ie that they are researched and unconditionally true and sup[port accordingly allegations of social injustice.

    In particular and by way of example the slighting and villification of Cadbury by almost casual reference in relation to his plantations on Sao Thome at the turn of the 20th Century.

    The author has clearly forgotten that Cadbury sued, I think the Daily Telegraph, for libel based upon an allegation repeated here that he kept his workers on his plantations on Sao Thpme in conditions of near slavery. The newspaper had compared the same to the conditions of his English workers in their Bournville model village and his religious beliefs.

    The Jury found after a full and heavily fought trial (in which his own legal team had been incompetent and the Telegraph's probably cheated and certainly took advantage of technicalities) that he had been libelled. The evidence did not establish the allegation.

    No doubt it did establish that the workers in Sao Thome were much worse off but not the allegation repeated here.

    Of course Cadbury is long since dead and his libel trial all but forgotten.

    But if there is going to be a researched and balanced scholarly work produced then some balance should be evident.

    It is easy to be critical of great mean and great organisations when good intentions do not produce social justice.

    But I question whether it is then right to draw the inferences that their participation is the root cause of such injustice - and to take rumour as proof of facts leading to that conclusion is not fair and does the cause of social justice no favours either.

  2. This blog entry is a book review of a specific book, in which the author has documented her research and investigations into chocolate towards the end of the book. I have since returned the book to my local library so I am not able to quote specific pages.
    I leave it to the reader to do their own readings and come to their own conclusions. Carol Off presents a survey of the socio-economic and political landscape at the time of the judgement and (I think) does a decent job of putting things in context.

    Here are a few other notes on Cadbury and Sao Tome:

    I will be posting the last reference on my blog entry as a counterweight to my own book review. This blog entry is not meant as an indictment on Cadburys; rather, I believe that we can't get to where we want to be without knowing where we've been. I enjoy Cadbury's products; I had some yesterday for Easter.

  3. don't worry anonymous, no one will judge you for eating slave(less) chocolate... Be careful tho, the sweat of all those Cote d'Ivoirians adds lots of calories to the chocolate. So don't let your sweet tooth get the better of you.