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The Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Exhibit On Chocolate: Worth Seeing, But…

February 16, 2016



A special exhibit at Denver’s wondrous – and it is! – Museum of Nature and Science features the history of chocolate. Needless to say it is quite popular. It is the latest in a series of special exhibits that the museum has brought to Denver of high quality. Among other recent special exhibits was a fine elaborate display of “The Silk Road” – that ancient trade route between China and Europe – now being rebuilt in modern times to unite the Eurasian land mass (and avoid a U.S. maritime navel build up in the Indian Ocean). It was on loan from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  So fascinated by it, I visited it four times. A second recent exhibit of equal historical value explored the many uses of poison, both natural and man-made, as a source of defense for many animals and plants and of course a means of attacking, neutralizing others.

The chocolate exhibit, Chocolate, The Exhibition, now on display,is funded to Denver by a local chocolate manufacturer and retailer, Enstrom’s that started out as a small company in Grand Junction a half century ago. It produces, among other items, a “to die for” almond toffee popular in the Denver area around Christmas time. While Enstrom’s put out the necessary money to bring it to Denver, the exhibit itself is owned by the Field Museum in Chicago.

Over all, minus a few details that will be discussed below, it is very well done, historically and sociologically interesting – and accurate. It details the earliest cultivation and use of cacao by the Mayan, its spread through Mexico and Central America as a ritualistic drink, its mixture with spices to form the well-known “mole” sauces. The exhibit continues with the Spanish hundred year monopoly of cacao bean industry, its spread to Europe, especially after sugar is added to the bean’s crushed power, followed by the industrialization of chocolate during the late 19th century in Europe.

The exhibit did not shy from noting the relationship between cacao and sugar production and the growth of slavery, as so much of the cacao and sugar were raised on slave plantations. Mention was also made of the famous “Cadbury case.” In 1904, chocolate maker, Cadbury, still very much in business, found itself in the eye of a storm as it was revealed that the cacao used in their chocolates was produced by slave labor on the Portuguese island of Sao Tome.

The mention of the case showed that the exhibit organizers were willing to look at a slice of the shady past of plantation cacao production. But visitors were left with the impression that these horrid work conditions are a thing of the past, and that today, cacao workers are much better treated, an essentially distorted (and ethically dishonest) impression of the current realities.

They, the cacao workers, remain at the bottom of the global world economy, that part of the system which for the past 600 years has produced the raw materials and basic food stuff at dirt low wages and terrible working conditions which have never really gotten far from slave conditions. In fact, as noted below, throughout the global periphery, be it in cacao production, mining or whatever, wages and working conditions remain abysmal, forced down so that profit levels in richer countries can be maintained at higher levels. It is an old story, unfortunately and hasn’t changed much over the centuries despite the progressive rhetoric to the contrary.

Likewise, nothing in the exhibit made any mention of how contemporary cacao growers, being at the bottom of the commodity chain, are systematically denied access to the more profitable aspects of chocolate making, wholesaling, refining, the actual production of chocolate by “chocolateers” and its retail sales. In fact, when African countries have tried to gain a bit more control of the commodity chains by producing their own chocolate, European chocolate makers set up heavy tariffs which essentially killed the efforts, restricting cacao producers to the most labor intensive and least profitable part of the chocolate making cycle.


Yet somehow, despite its many positive qualities – it is indeed an interesting exhibit – “Chocolate: The Exhibition” tends to skip over, and in so doing, essentially deny, many of the less savory aspects of chocolate making, especially where the stuff is taken out of the ground.

In fact, despite their wondrous flavors, shapes, there really is no such thing as “Belgian, Swiss, French, Dutch chocolate.” The basic ingredient – cacao – is unknown in temperate zones. All the cacao in the world is produced in countries, regions near the equator, with a full 70% of it coming from two African countries, Ivory Coast, Ghana and the rest of Africa. Some ten million people owe their survival to the industry.

Most of West African cacao is bought up by a small number of mega-companies: Nestlé (the world’s leading food manufacturer – with an annual turn over of 69 billion Euros), Cargill,  Mars, Hershey, Ferreo, Barry Callebout. They are represented by an international consortium, the International Cocoa Initiative, an organization whose claims to counter child labor in the field are difficult to take seriously.

Cacao is a classic “peripheral” product in that it is grown in the Third World overwhelmingly for a market in core countries (Europe and North America). There is very little domestic or regional demand in Africa for the stuff and virtually no control in the producing countries over any aspect of the commodity chain other than growing the raw material, the cacao bean.

Cocoa, or cacao, is the stuff from which chocolate is made. According to the officials in the Ivory Coast government, and the major cacao producers,  the trafficking of children to work in the country’s cocoa industry doesn’t exist, or hardly and child labor has been greatly reduced. These claims fly in the face of reality. For the past decade at least, a number of investigative journalists have made videos and written articles for major publications detailing the trafficking of children from poverty-stricken Mali and Burkina Faso to the cacao farms in northern Ivory Coast. These reports document the extensive use of child labor within the industry.

Despite the denials from these government officials and European and North American agricultural conglomerates that by most of the Ivory Coast’s cocoa production, there is little to suggest that the trade in children – cannon fodder – for the industry, has slowed at all, to say nothing of having altogether ceased. In fact, the indications are that if anything, as demand for chocolate grows, that the use of child labor in the West African cacao industry is on the rise.

A chocolate shop in Antwerp Belgium, March, 2009

A chocolate shop in Antwerp Belgium, March, 2009

A series of hard-hitting documentaries, as well as a few major studies, tell a far different story – the extensive use of child labor – often times approaching nothing short of slavery – in the cocoa production of Ivory Coast and Ghana. One such study was a 2011, Tulane University investigation “Oversight of Public and Private Initiatives to Eliminate the Worst Forms of Child Labor in the Cocoa Sector in Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana.” The executive summary of that report notes that more than 50% of the children in agricultural households in the cocoa-growing regions of the two countries work in agriculture was perhaps as many as half of that number working in cocoa production.

Put more bluntly, the profitability of cocoa production in the two countries is fueled by child labor, a good part of it, it appears, nothing less than slave labor. The study estimates that in the years examined (2007-9) that some 820,000 children in Côte d’Ivoire and close to a million (997,357 to be precise) in Ghana worked in cocoa-related activities. Of these 1.8 million children the study estimated that only 5% in Côte d’Ivoire and 10% in Ghana work for pay. Nor do they enjoy – with precious few exceptions – any educational or medical services.

The extensive use of child labor in these two countries, in the cacao farming/agricultural system is a part of a much larger extensive use of child labor in the peripheral regions of the global economy. According to a 2012 detailed report on global child labor by the U.S. Department of Labor, “Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor,” worldwide the International Labor Organization estimates that there are at least 168 million child labors of which some 21 million have been forced into work against their will. 85 million of these children are working in conditions deemed “hazardous.” 21 million of them – not an insignificant number – involved in forced labor, and of those some 6 million as involuntary sexual workers and debt bondage.

The section of “Findings of the Worst Forms of Child Labor” that deals with the Ivory Coast – Cote d’Ivoire in French – is especially hard-hitting. While admitting that in recent years there have been a number of attempts to address the child labor epidemic in the cacao (and other) industry, still the efforts seem both half-hearted and ineffective.  It notes:

There are no programs to assist children found in the worst forms of child labor in other types of agriculture besides cocoa, or in mining, domestic service, and commercial sexual exploitation. Throughout the reporting period, children continued to engage in hazardous work in agriculture. Such work occurred particularly on cocoa farms, sometimes under conditions of forced labor.)

Children also labor in the production of grains, vegetables, and coffee, and reportedly work in the production of bananas, cotton, palm, papayas, pineapple, rice, and rubber.(10-14) Children working in agriculture in Côte d’Ivoire use dangerous tools such as machetes, carry heavy loads, and apply harmful pesticides.

In the end, in today’s world, unfortunately, there is really nothing unusual about how cacao is grown, how exploitative the process is. A look at mining in Africa, rubber production in Indonesia and Malaysia, the extraction of coltan (used in cell phones) in the Congo, (or for that matter cocaine), just to name a few follows a similar pattern: super exploitation of those who take the stuff out of the ground, repression of raw material prices, super profits once the raw materials leave the regions where they have been produced ending up in the hands of wholesalers, refiners and distributors.

Outside of the production of the initial raw material itself, what is referred to as “vertical integration” dominates the rest of the commodity chain in the hands of a few companies that dominate the world market and the profits thereof. In the end, a company like Enstrom (and the Field Museum in Chicago) are little more than bit players in the larger picture with little (- to no- ) responsibility in the abuses described above. But they must be well aware of the overall picture.

You wouldn’t know it from the exhibit, though.



Jacqueline Mars…making a fortune on Snickers, Mars bars and Three Musketeers

CNN – Ending Modern-Day Slavery

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