In March 2004, Tony van de Keuken of the Netherlands walked into a public prosecutor’s office and asked to be arrested. His crime? Eating chocolate.
Tony understood the sobering reality that thousands of children are forced to work in the cocoa farms of Cote d’Ivoire where most of the world’s cocoa (the beans from which we make chocolate) grows. He realized that child slavery taints most of the chocolate produced in the world. In the Netherlands, it is illegal, and punishable by up to four years in prison, to purchase something you know was obtained using criminal methods. So Tony ate some chocolate and asked the prosecutors to arrest him as a chocolate criminal. The way he saw it, as a consumer of chocolate, he knowingly supported the systems of child labor and human slavery. Tony’s case made international news and eventually made it to the Dutch Supreme Court, which even heard the testimonies of former child slaves. The judge ended up dismissing the case on the grounds that prosecutors have the right to decide not to press charges.
The problem with chocolate
I’m not really a sweets person, but I love a good piece of dark chocolate. It’s hard to imagine there being any problem with something so delectable. Exchanged as a token of love on Valentine’s Day, hidden in brightly colored eggs at Easter time, and dropped into the awaiting buckets of princesses and pirates at Halloween, chocolate represents more than just a tasty indulgence; it is a cultural symbol. It is also a mega industry. In 2000, people in the United States consumed 3.3 billion pounds of chocolate, spending nearly $13 billion to supply that habit. Yet the media’s repeated reports on the appalling conditions in cocoa farms has cast a shadow over this sweet treat.
The majority of the world’s cocoa beans grow in West Africa—especially in the countries of Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, nations struggling to overcome poverty and unrest. Farmers sell these beans to the world’s major chocolate producers, like Hershey’s, Nestle and Mars. So the beans from these countries are the source of most of the chocolate those of us in Western countries consume.
Media reports reveal the often horrific working conditions in the cocoa farms. These reports indicate that there are high numbers of children working to harvest cocoa beans. While children generally lend a hand on the family farm in agriculturally based societies, these children typically aren’t family, or even local, but instead have been trafficked in from neighboring countries. These children face starvation, forced labor, beatings and many are forced to work for little or no pay.
These revelations have caused an international stir, and when the information first came out, investigations commenced immediately by many government and nongovernment organizations. The reports they produced were shocking. In 2000, the U.S. State Department revealed that, although child labor, human trafficking and forced labor are all prohibited in Cote d’Ivoire, all three are still commonly practiced. Another report produced two years later by the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture revealed that an "estimated 284,000 children are working on cocoa farms in hazardous tasks such as using machetes and applying pesticides and insecticides without the necessary protective equipment." The report also indicated strong evidence of human trafficking. Such practices are illegal worldwide, and the United States even forbids the import of goods made from forced child labor.
Yet these practices are often overlooked or ignored by the companies that the farms supply. The result? Much of the chocolate we consume has its roots in child labor, often forced or slave labor. Like Tony van de Keuken, most of us are guilty of aiding criminal behavior, even slavery, every time we indulge in a chocolaty treat.
So what can we do?
Encourage elected officials to support laws that seek justice. In 2001, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel introduced an amendment to the 2002 Agriculture Appropriations Bill to set aside $250,000 for the Food and Drug Administration to develop "slave free" labeling requirements on cocoa products. The House of Representatives approved the bill by a vote of 291-115 in June 2001. Unfortunately many of the major chocolate companies wouldn’t legally qualify for a "no slave labor" label to be put on their product and weren’t happy about legislation insisting they had to. The big chocolate companies hired former U.S. presidential candidate Bob Dole to lobby their cause to the Senate. He helped them reach a "compromise" that avoided mandatory legislation but had them agree to the "Harkin-Engel Protocol," which said they would voluntarily put an end to forced child labor on cocoa farms by July 2005. That deadline passed with no change, and the companies then received an extension until July 2008 to comply.
Use your purchasing power as a consumer. One of the simplest ways to effect change is to use your power as a consumer. Candy companies rely on impulse buys for 90 percent of their sales. Altering this everyday action can send a huge message to the chocolate companies. If you choose to buy fairly traded or "slave-free" chocolate, you are telling those companies that you care about issues like slavery and that you refuse to be complicit in supporting such practices. I know it’s hard to say no to the Snickers seduction in the checkout lane at the grocery store, but the candy companies are counting on that. So even though it might take a little more self-discipline, seeking out slave-free options helps create an alternative economy that tries to avoid hurting others for profit.
Slave-free chocolate for snacking, drinking or baking is not really that hard to find either. In many stores it simply means leaving the impulse-buy aisle for the specialty candy section. Slave-free options are also widely available online. Companies like Serrv (serrv.org), Global Exchange (globalexchange.org) and even Amazon (amazon.com) all offer slave-free chocolate—including even seasonal items like Easter candies. Purchasing your chocolate from these sources impacts the market and shows there is a demand for products produced without slave labor. However, to end the horror for children right now, more active steps are necessary.
Write to the chocolate companies. As a consumer, you can also send direct messages to the major chocolate companies like Nestle and Mars to let them know that you care about how they produce their chocolate. Write letters or e-mails, asking them to abide by the Harkin-Engel Protocol like they promised. Ask them to ensure that their milk chocolate bars (England’s top-selling chocolate bar) are fair-trade, slave-free certified by the summer of 2009. This huge step forward in the campaign to end modern-day slavery demonstrates the power of consumers raising their voices for justice.
Adapted from Everyday Justice: The Global Impact of Our Daily Choices by Julie Clawson. Copyright 2009 by Julie Clawson. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. PO Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515. www.IVPress.com.