Dark chocolate industry has bitter side

Having just celebrated Valentine’s Day, thoughts often turn to chocolate. I am personally a big fan of this treat, but as I’ve been discovering lately, there is a dark side to the chocolate industry. We as consumers need to be educated about what is behind a seemingly innocent confection and investigate alternatives to mass produced chocolate.

Nearly 80 percent of the world’s chocolate is produced in West Africa, specifically Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Chocolate farms are notorious for relying on child labor and specifically child slaves. The people in these countries tend to live in poverty, and this makes them susceptible to human trafficking, as other opportunities for employment are few.

Children are frequently recruited from Mali and Burkina Faso, some of the poorest countries in the world. The children are often sold by their own relatives because they are promised good pay and they are ignorant of the true conditions of the farms or the fact that the children will not be allowed to leave for some time, if ever. Some children are outright abducted and trafficked across their countries’ borders.

These children work in dangerous conditions. They use machetes to cut open the cocoa bean pods, which often leaves them with scars all over their bodies. They transport pods in sacks that are often larger than the children themselves. They are forced to spray powerful insecticides on the plants, without the use of protective clothing. They face frequent beatings from not working quickly.

The slaves are housed in unhealthy environments; they are confined in squalor without clean water or necessary sanitation.

Meals consist of cheap food such as corn paste and bananas, hardly sufficient nutrition for such demanding work. Needless to say, they are not given the opportunity for education, ensuring the cycle of poverty will not be broken, even if they are fortunate enough to escape captivity. The mental and physical effects of slavery last long after individuals are freed.

As can be imagined, with such a profitable industry, large international companies have little incentive to change the methods of production.

As word has gotten out about the true conditions of the cocoa farms, the governments of these countries have become increasingly hostile to journalists and other reporters who investigate potential human rights violations. Large chocolate manufacturers have the power to demand ethical treatment of workers but have not used their influence responsibly.

Chocolate that is ethically produced is going to cost more. That is the reality when people are paid fairly for their work. But this is really the only option when we take the time to truly think on this issue.

No matter how much we love chocolate, feeding our collective sweet tooth should not be at the expense of others. How can we find pleasure in a product that someone suffered to make?

And chocolate is not a staple, no matter how much we might joke about it.

We need to take a more European approach, that chocolate is to be of good quality as is to be savored, not gobbled down every day as is the American tendency.

Higher-end chocolate is often healthier, having fewer additives than mainstream bars, not to mention a wider array of exotic flavors — sea salt caramel, chili and lavender — to name a few.

What action can we take? As consumers, we have purchasing power, and that is a way to get large chocolate producers to notice that there is a demand for ethically produced chocolate.

Some of the better-known brands of fair-trade chocolate are Dagoba, Green & Black, Endangered Species, and Equal Exchange. For a more comprehensive list, go to: vision.ucsd.edu.

There is also a movement known as bean to bar. This is where individual chocolatiers buy cocoa beans directly from a producer and create chocolate bars from a single source of beans.

This allows the nuances of flavor to be articulated in confectionery works of art. But the real advantage of this movement is that the cocoa has not passed through many different hands, which increases the likelihood that slavery has been involved at some point in the process.

It is possible to occasionally enjoy a luxury product and to be thankful that we can do so. But let’s do our research first so that we can consume in a way that does not cause harm to any individuals, no matter where they live.

Stephanie Haines is a writer from Greenfield who now lives in Bloomington. She can be contacted through her website, www.stephaniehaines.com.