The Good, the Bad and the Savory

Is There Slavery in Your Chocolate?


Chocolate. The very word conjures feelings of pleasure, sensuality, and the richness of life. The scientific name of the tree that produces the beans we use for chocolate, likewise bespeaks the depth of feeling human beings have always had for chocolate. It is Theobroma cacao. The name of the genus, Theobroma, comes from two Greek words: theos, meaning gods, and broma, meaning foods. Thus, literally, “food of the gods.”

Most of us, though, aren’t all that concerned with the history or chemistry of chocolate. We’re content so long as the market shelves remain well stocked with affordable tins of cocoa and bars of chocolate candy.

Or at least that’s how it was until the summer of 2001, when the Knight Ridder Newspapers ran a series of investigative articles that revealed a very dark side to our chocolate consumption. In riveting detail, the series profiled young boys who were sold as slaves to Ivory Coast cocoa farmers.

Ivory Coast, located on the southern coast of West Africa, is by far the world’s largest supplier of cocoa beans, providing 43 percent of the world’s supply. There are 600,000 cocoa farms in Ivory Coast which together account for one-third of the nation’s entire economy.

According to a 2000 investigative report by the BBC, hundreds of thousands of children in Mali, Burkina Faso and Togo are being purchased from their destitute parents and shipped to the Ivory Coast, where they are sold as slaves to cocoa farms. These children, ranging in age from 12 to14 years (and sometimes younger), are forced to do hard manual labor 80 to 100 hours a week. They are paid nothing, barely fed and beaten regularly. They are viciously beaten if they try to escape. Most will never see their families again.

“The beatings were a part of my life,” Aly Diabate, a freed slave, told reporters. “Anytime they loaded you with bags [of cocoa beans] and you fell while carrying them, nobody helped you. Instead they beat you and beat you until you picked it up again.”

Slavery Past and Present
The ownership of one human being by another is illegal in Ivory Coast (as it is in every other country in the world today) but that doesn’t mean slavery has ceased to exist. Rather, it has simply changed its form.

Filmmakers Brian Woods and Kate Blewett recently completed a film about child slaves in African cocoa fields. “It isn’t the slavery we are all familiar with,” says Brian Woods since, under traditional slavery, “a slave owner could produce documents to prove ownership. Modern slaves are cheap and disposable.”

In times past, we had slaveowners. Now we have slaveholders. In both cases, the slave is forced to work by violence or the threat of violence, paid nothing, given only that which keeps him or her able to continue to work, is not free to leave, and can be killed without significant legal consequence. In many cases, non-ownership turns out to be in the financial interest of slaveholders, who now reap all the benefits of ownership without the obligations and legal responsibilities.

Kevin Bales is author of Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy and director of Free The Slaves, an American branch of Anti-Slavery International. Bales points out that one of the economic drawbacks of the old slavery was the cost of maintaining slaves who were too young or too old to work. Children rarely brought in more than they cost until the age of 10 or 12 (though they were put to work as early as possible). Slavery was profitable, but the profitability was diminished by the cost of keeping infants, small children, and unproductive old people. The new slavery avoids this extra cost and so increases its profits.

In the United States, the old slavery consisted primarily of bringing people against their will from Africa. Bales says that before the Civil War, the cost to purchase the average slave amounted to the equivalent of $50,000 (in today’s dollars). Currently, though, enslaved people are bought and sold in the world’s most destitute nations for only $50 or $100. The result is that they tend to be treated as disposable. Slaves today are so cheap that they’re not even seen as a capital investment anymore. Unlike slaveowners, slaveholders don’t have to take care of their slaves. They can just use them up and then throw them away.

Fighting the “Slave Free” Label
As publicity about the use of child slaves in the chocolate industry mounted in the summer and fall of 2001, so did pressure on the chocolate manufacturers.

On June 28, 2001, the US House of Representatives voted 291 to 115 to look into setting up a labeling system so consumers could be assured that no slave labor was used in the production of their chocolate. Unhappy with this turn of events, the US chocolate industry and its allies mounted an intense lobbying effort to fight off legislation that would require “slave free” labels for their products. The Chocolate Manufacturers Association (CMA), a trade group that represents US chocolate producers, hired two former Senate majority leaders - Republican Bob Dole and Democrat George Mitchell - to lobby on its behalf.

Many major chocolate makers have insisted that they bear no responsibility for the problem, since they don’t own the cocoa farms. But pressure on the industry was mounting. The legislation to address child slavery in West Africa that had passed in the House (sponsored by Representative Eliot Engel) was almost certain to pass in the Senate (where it was sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin). On October 1, 2001, the chocolate industry announced a four-year plan to eliminate child slavery in cocoa-producing nations. If all went according to plan, the Harkin-Engel Protocol would end the “worst forms of child labor” and slavery would no longer be used to produce chocolate and cocoa by 2005.

The agreement was signed by the CMA and the World Cocoa Foundation. Also signing were chocolate producers Hershey’s, M&M Mars, Nestlé and World’s Finest Chocolate along with cocoa processors Blommer Chocolate, Guittard Chocolate, Barry Callebaut and Archer Daniels Midland. It was endorsed by a wide variety of groups including the government of Ivory Coast, the International Labor Organization’s child labor office, Free the Slaves, the Child Labor Coalition, the International Cocoa Organization (which represents cocoa-growing countries) and the National Consumer League.

The six-point protocol commits the chocolate industry to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the International Labor Organization to monitor and remedy abusive forms of child labor used in growing and processing cocoa beans. An independent monitoring and public reporting system is to be in place by May 2002. Industry-wide voluntary standards of public certification are to be in place by July 1, 2005.

In addition, the chocolate companies agreed to fund a joint international foundation run by a board of industry and NGO representatives to oversee and sustain efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor in the industry. The agreement provides for a formal advisory group to investigate child labor practices in West Africa and commits the chocolate companies to “identify positive development alternatives for the children” who might be affected.

Whose Chocolate Is Made by Slaves?
Even with the progress represented by the chocolate industry’s plan, it will take years for chocolate products to become “slave-free.” In the meantime, is there any way for chocolate consumers to know that they are not consuming products made with child slavery?

A 2001 inquiry into the cocoa sources used by 200 major chocolate manufacturers found significant differences between companies. The $13 billion US chocolate industry is heavily dominated by just two firms - Hershey’s and M&M Mars - that control two-thirds of the market. Unfortunately, both of these companies fall into the category of those companies using large amounts of Ivory Coast cocoa. Their products are almost certainly produced in part by slavery.

Hershey Foods Corp., the nation’s largest chocolate maker, says it is “shocked” and “deeply concerned” that its Hershey’s Kisses, Nuggets, chocolate bars and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups may be made with cocoa produced by child slaves. The company, which has a long history of involvement with children, says it is deeply embarrassed by revelations of indirect involvement with child slavery. (Hershey Foods, which has a market capitalization on Wall Street of $8.4 billion, is affiliated with a school for orphaned and disadvantaged children, established in 1909 by company founder Milton S. Hershey and his wife Catherine.)

M&M Mars and Hershey Foods Corp. are not alone. Other companies whose chocolate is almost certainly tainted with child slavery include: ADM Cocoa, Ben & Jerry’s, Cadbury Ltd., Chocolates by Bernard Callebaut, Fowler’s Chocolate, Godiva, Guittard Chocolate Company, Kraft, Nestlé, See’s Candies, The Chocolate Vault and Toblerone. While most of these companies have issued condemnations of slavery, and expressed a great deal of moral outrage that it exists in the industry, they each have acknowledged that they use Ivory Coast cocoa and so have no grounds to ensure consumers that their products are slavery-free.

Mars, Hershey and Nestlé say that there is no way they can control the labor practices of their suppliers. But there are other chocolate companies that manage to do so. These companies include Clif Bar, Cloud Nine, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, Denman Island Chocolate, Divine, Gardners Candies, Green and Black’s, Kailua Candy Company, Koppers Chocolate, L.A. Burdick Chocolates, Montezuma’s Chocolates, Newman’s Own Organics, Omanhene Cocoa Bean Company, Rapunzel Pure Organics and The Endangered Species Chocolate Company.

At present, no organic cocoa beans are coming from Ivory Coast, so organic chocolate is unlikely to be tainted by slavery. Newman’s Own Organics, one of the largest of the slavery-free companies, purchases its chocolate from the Organic Commodity Project in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which buys from Costa Rica where the farms are closely monitored.

Some companies go further and buy only Fair Trade chocolate. In the early 1990s, the chocolate maker Rapunzel initiated a “Hand in Hand” program called Eco-Trade - Fair Trade and Ecology. Strict guidelines and commitments must be maintained by all Rapunzel’s partners in buying, selling, trading, growing and processing commodities in developing countries. Guaranteed fair pricing, long-term trade relationships, living wages and no child labor are just a few of the criteria. The company’s cocoa comes from cooperatives in Bolivia and the Dominican Republic. The company’s donations have built a school in the Dominican Republic, an orphanage in Brazil, and provided major support for organic farmers in Bolivia.

Cloud Nine has organized 150 grower families into a certified organic cooperative and has committed to purchasing cocoa from them year-round at over-market organic prices.

The Endangered Species Chocolate company purchases cocoa only through the Fair Trade Initiative. The company says “we encourage the indigenous people to harvest what is naturally grown in the area rather than clear-cutting the rainforest to make way for more destructive uses of land.”

According to Frederick Schilling of the Dagoba Organic Chocolate Company, “By being paid a premium price, these farming communities can and are developing their communities by their own means and terms, often times building schools for their children.”

John Robbins is the author of The Food Revolution and Diet For A New America. This is an abridged version of a longer article that also covers the coffee trade, and which can be found at

Copyright Earth Island Journal

Solar-Powered Chocolate
The Grenada Chocolate Company, Ltd. [Hermitage, St. Patrick’s, Grenada, WI,] boasts the world’s first solar-powered chocolate plant. The cooperative’s 16 AstroPower solar-electric panels keep the kettles of organic cocoa simmering and refrigeration units chilled even when the island’s power grid goes down. Grenadians used to export all their cocoa beans. Now, for the first time, they can enjoy chocolates made in Grenada.

Sweet & Bitter Resources
What You Can Do Buy only Fair Trade chocolate. Ask your local stores to carry Fair Trade chocolate and coffee through Global Exchange [2017 Mission Street, No. 303, San Francisco, California 94110, (415) 255-7296,].

  • Ask Hershey Foods [100 Crystal A Drive, Hershey, PA 17033, (717) 534-6799] and Mars, Inc. [6885 Elm Street, McLean, VA 22101, (703) 821-4900] to buy Fair Trade cocoa.
  • Join Anti-Slavery International [Suite 312-CIP, 1755 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20036-2102].

Web resources on specific chocolate companies:

Web resources on children and slavery:

Web resources on genetically modified foods:

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.