U.S. Efforts in Cocoa Trade Far From Sweet

Jean Stevens

Chocoholics have it right: European chocolate is better. Or at least, far more sustainable and just.

European Union members and several other countries of the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) (not including the United States) signed a new agreement Friday at a United Nations conference. The agreement reestablishes countries’ commitments to making the $10 billion abuse-ridden cocoa industry more sustainable and fair to workers, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). But this move will only help improve conditions so much. Things can’t really get significantly better until the world’s largest consumer of cocoa, the U.S., finally decides to take the cocoa high road.

Since 2001, the U.N., the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) and other human rights groups have worked to address the rampant exploitation and slavery of workers, typically children of the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which produce about 60 percent of the world’s chocolate. But despite nobel efforts, the groups’ agreements have done little to improve conditions. About 3.6 million West African children work on cocoa farms, many of whom make very little to no pay while under horrific conditions, according to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

So why has nothing changed? Blame American chocolate and agricultural companies like Mars and Cargill, who process 400,000 tons of cocoa each year and demand that prices stay low. Chocolate companies "have been able to control initiatives meant to eliminate forced, child and trafficked labor in West Africa’s cocoa industry," according to a January report by the ILRF. Companies purchase cocoa through small farmers at a very low cost, refusing to pay prices that comply with Fair Trade practices.

Chocolate companies based in the United States, which refused to join ICCO when it formed in 1973, are particularly egregious. Under Congress’ watered-down 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol, they volunteered to create and adopt their own standards to eliminate child slavery and develop certification systems for labor standards. But they’ve largely failed to do so, according to a 2009 Tulane University study, and slave conditions remain widespread and farmers exploited. Investigative journalist Christian Parenti has described so-called aid efforts as mostly talk — Cargill and other corporations have refused to accept higher price thresholds, working with the corrupt Ivory Coast government and thwarting local farmers’ attempts to unionize. More corporate consolidation has only further pressured farmers to keep costs low.

At least the British are getting their act together. Earlier this year, Nestle UK adopted Fair Trade certification, and last year the British company Cadbury adopted a new certification system verifying Fair Trade cocoa in their chocolate. U.S.-based Mars followed suit, but only for the UK-based Galaxy bar, leaving American candy untouched. (Don’t give the Brits too much credit: Human rights advocates point out this system means only 30 percent of the product’s cocoa was sustainably produced, hardly a reassuring statistic.)

The ICCO agreement reminds us of the US’ shamefully underwhelming, if not manipulative, moves toward industry improvements. Congress must amend the Protocol to require U.S. companies follow stricter standards like Fair Trade. We’ve seen what happens when companies volunteer their own standards, or commit to international agreements like ICCO’s — nothing changes.

Photo credit: Sonia Watson via Flickr Creative Commons

Jean Stevens is a freelance journalist based in New York whose work focuses on issues relating to sustainable food.

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