Cardboard Hearts Full of West African Chocolate and Western Guilt

(On a cocoa farm in Ivory Coast)

On Valentine's Day our cardboard hearts are filled with chocolate.

This week, Americans will buy nearly 60 million pounds of chocolate. We know the final destination -- in the bellies of our sweethearts -- but few know about the origin of cocoa.

According to the USDA, two-thirds of cocoa beans, which actually are seeds that grow in pods on trees, come from the West African nations of Ghana and Ivory Coast. If you knew this already, you've probably seen or read one of the reports on how our love for chocolate supports a cocoa industry built on child slaves.

The "child slave" narrative goes like this: Slave traders lure children from their homes by promising a bike for a year's worth of work. The children are given machetes. They are overworked, underfed, and they miss their families. Many of them don't even know what chocolate is.

This narrative haunted me, and I wasn't alone. It dominates our political and social action, and our view of West African cocoa.

In 2001, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel and Senator Tom Harkin, introduced and passed the Harkin-Engel Protocol, which sought to end child labor in the cocoa industry and establish a child-free certification by 2005. (There is still no certification.)

The Louisiana Municipal Police Employees' Retirement System, which owns shares of Hershey's, is suing the company for putting its investment at risk by building its "chocolate empire on . . . a foundation of West African child labor."

In response to such negative publicity Hershey's recently followed the lead of the other major chocolate companies and committed to sourcing 100 percent "certified cocoa" by 2020. It's not clear what they mean by "certified cocoa."

When I followed my Hershey's bar to Ivory Coast researching my book Where Am I Eating? An Adventure Through the Global Food Economy, I expected to see an industry rife with child labor.

In the heart of the cocoa region, I met Michael (not his real name), a cocoa farmer and father of three, who helped me see things differently. When I asked him about child labor, he said, "It used to be that when you were old enough to walk, you were old enough to work, but not anymore."

Michael, who started working at the age of 10, didn't understand why his children couldn't work in the fields like he had. He just knew that the Westerners who ultimately bought his cocoa don't want children working in the cocoa fields, so they don't.

As it turns out, the common "child slave" narrative isn't so common. According to a 2011 report by Tulane University's Payson Center for International Development and Technology Transfer that was commissioned by the U.S. government to investigate the prevalence of child labor in the industry, only .5 percent of children working in the cocoa fields work for a nonrelative. The rest aren't slaves, but farm kids.

So it seems a little off that our political will, consumer outrage, corporate social responsibility, and social activism is directed at the .5 percent -- 10,000 of two million kids working on farms -- when the region has so many other issues.

Those farmers who can't afford to hire outside labor, bend the rules and have their children help. Those farmers who can bring in workers on a sort of indentured servitude basis.

One laborer named Solo came from a neighboring country to work on a farm I visited. He had worked for four months and hadn't been paid. He wanted to leave the farm, but his "master" wouldn't let him. He told me that the donkeys on the farm get treated better than him. "At least when they don't work, they still get fed." If his master holds up his end of the bargain, Solo will get paid $300 at the end of a year's worth of work.

Solo was a slave, but he was 20-years-old, so his plight was widely accepted in Ivory Coast and not the focus of Western outrage.

At times farmers employ their own children, indentured servants, slaves, and, on the rare occasion, they buy child workers. Are these farmers evil plantation owners? Mostly they are just poorly-paid, small-scale farmers trying to make ends meet.

In the past year, I've also visited banana farmers in Costa Rica, apple farmers in China, and coffee farmers in Colombia. Nowhere did I meet farmers who lived in tougher conditions than those on the cocoa farms of West Africa. Many didn't have plumbing or electricity. Some hadn't eaten meat in over a year -- and not because they were vegetarians. One hundred percent of the farmers wanted to send their kids to school, but some of the farmers lived far from any school or couldn't afford to buy their children books and uniforms for school.

After touring his small farm, Michael, and I split a Hershey's bar I brought. He had eaten chocolate before, but not Hershey's chocolate. Michael earned about 0.0028 cents for the cocoa in the bar. Michael said he needed to earn three times this amount to provide the life he wants for his family. That's a whopping half-cent extra per bar.

Child slavery is a distracting symptom that keeps us from addressing the real problems: The fruit of the farmers' labor is valued by the world, but not at their farm gate; they receive no technical support, their yields are declining, and the quality of their lives rises and falls with the prices of one of the world's most volatile commodities. If we really want to end child labor and slavery in the West African cocoa industry, paying farmers half of a penny more per bar would go a long way in doing that.

As consumers, we can encourage the industry to change by buying Fair Trade Certified chocolate, which pays farmers a premium and reinvests in the farmers' local communities.

Until we address the true challenges of the cocoa industry our cardboard hearts will be filled with more than chocolate; they'll also be filled with guilt.