Under the wrapper

Please chip in to support rabble's election 2019 coverage. Support rabble.ca today for as little as $1 per month!

 Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet
Carol Off gets underneath the pretty package to expose big chocolate's dirtiest secrets

JOURNALIST CAROL OFF's new book Bitter Chocolate exposes just what's behind our favourite Valentine treat. She tells the radio book lounge about the child cocoa labourers she spoke with who had never heard of chocolate and shares her critique of fair trade as the solution. She also recounts the amazing response to the book from those outraged by the situation. In part two of The Chocolate Episode, we hear from a fair-trade co-op that works for fair prices for cocoa farmers.

PART ONE âe" Carol Off on Bitter Chocolate >>> CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW

PART TWO âe" The fair-trade alternative >>> CLICK HERE TO LISTEN NOW



The Côte dâe(TM)Ivoire, recently stabilized after a bloody civil war, is gearing-up for another conflict: one between the cocoa farmerâe(TM)s union (Anaproci) and the current government. It was the governmentâe(TM)s privatization of the cocoa industry in 2000 that drove prices down, creating economic hardship and odious labour practices âe" children working unprotected with toxic herbicides and machetes, carrying loads far too heavy for their fragile frames.

A large portion of the worldâe(TM)s chocolate begins as cocoa beans grown in Côte dâe(TM)Ivoire under these conditions. The extent to which these children are indentured is difficult for the award-winning journalist Carol Off to determine as the threat of retribution ensures the childrenâe(TM)s silence, while only a few of the adults interviewed would even admit to their abuse. Her investigation is further hampered by the perilous conditions of the civil war.

Nevertheless, for anyone concerned with understanding the political, environmental and humanitarian issues wrapped-up in a box of Valentineâe(TM)s chocolates, Bitter Chocolate is an informative primer. The malevolent atmosphere of the jungle plantations is evoked by poetic prose, âeoeThe sun is melting into the forest as we depart this desolate, forbidding place, conscious of the perils lurking in the darkening bushâe¦,âe while the narrative pace is kept brisk by the judicious use of quotes and statistics.

Offâe(TM)s journey begins at the beginning when Europeans first encountered Theobroma, the drink of the gods that is a hot foamy broth of unsweetened cocoa spiked with chilies, the exclusive reserve of Montezuma and other Meso-American demi-gods.

Off âe~s revelation of the less well-known Quaker connection to our latter-day multinational consortiums she calls Big Chocolate creates a frightening symmetry of hypocrisy between paternalist capitalist benevolence versus rapacious capitalist greed, utopia versus dystopia, our hunger for the sensual, luxury of chocolate and the real hunger and deprivation it unwittingly creates, all played-out on a revolving stage that alternates between the spheres of Western capitalist commodities-gobbling democracies and the post-colonial worlds they still seek to control.

The dramatis personae consists of the Rowntree, Cadbury, Fry and Hershey families who, through an inexplicable conspiracy of coincidence, were all Quakers, and while silent on the pursuit and accumulation of wealth, their moral code demanded methods that accounted for and improved the lot of their workers. The Quaker paters-familias created factories that were models of democracy and the centres of their bizarre fairy-tale chocolate worlds where workers lived in tightly controlled company towns in which sobriety, and Christian virtues reigned supreme; ideal societies where there would be "no poverty, no nuisances, no evil," and one presumes, no fun.

Quaker benevolence however, failed to extend itself to the cocoa plantations of Sao Tome, off the Guinea coast and the Caribbean nations where the labour was indentured, unpaid and the worker of a different colour.

In the 1960s, Côte dâe(TM)Ivoireâe(TM)s autocratic visionary, Felix Houphouet-Boigny, or âe~Le Vieuxâe(TM) as Ivorians affectionately called him, wrought âe~The African Miracleâe(TM) which was founded on agricultural, political and economic reforms that made his country the worldâe(TM)s largest grower of cocoa, the strongest economy in the sub-Sahara, and âeoedarling of the colonial merchant class.âe Ivorianâe(TM)s standard of living was enviable and they became sophisticated urbanites, leaving the hard slog of agriculture to economic refugees from drought-ridden Mali and Guinea. This golden age, which ended in 1987, is juxtaposed with the post-Le Vieux economy of the past decade where, Off writes, âeoeBy the end of the millennium Côte dâe(TM)Ivoire was one of the most indebted nations on earthâe¦ Cocoa farmers slid deeper and deeper into poverty, and they began to look for cheaper ways to produce their beans. They turned to the same old scourge that has plagued cocoa growing since its inception âe" slavery.âe

In investigating the extent to which child slave labour is used today on the cocoa planations of Côte dâe(TM)Ivoire, Off interviews several players whose accounts thicken this Byzantine plot. Some of them seem to be straight out of a Le Carré novel, like the ruined Mali diplomat by the name of Abdoulaye Macko with the heart of gold and a sad sack of photos of child slaves he liberated who gains her access to three young men he freed some years ago; friends and colleagues of the enigmatic Guy-Andre Keiffer, a kind of honourable schoolboy and a rabble-rouser of the first order, whose access to low friends in high places gave him a fatal sense of hubris in his pursuit of the inconvenient and embarrassing truth about Ivorian government corruption, the extent of the involvement of other national interests and the use of slave labour, efforts that were repaid by his unsolved disappearance. All of this is under-pinned by accounts of the incredibly ineffectual efforts of UNICEF and Save the Children Canada to motivate Ivorians to become whistle-blowers and help stem the tide of child slave-labour traffic across the border, to liberate and give sanctuary to the unfortunate children and to rouse international moral outrage.

In fact, I found a certain curious attitude of seeming apathy on Offâe(TM)s part as she accepts without comment or question Mackoâe(TM)s assertion that when âeoehe eventually learned that the farmers had deals with an elaborate network of traffickers, and he began to understand that the real villains in the story were not the farmers but the crime rings who brought the children to the farms.âe Are we to believe in the exculpation of the farmers because economic necessity compels them to pay the slave traffickers instead of the children themselves? And that once in their care it is perfectly understandable that they beat, starve and work them to death?

The investigation moves to Belize and the fair-trade cocoa plantations run by the Toledo Cacao Growers Association ( TCGA), headed by Gregor Hargrove, (yes heâe(TM)s a relative of that Hargrove), who despite the farmersâe(TM) return to traditional agricultural practices which are safer and environmentally sustainable, improves their standard of living and their childrenâe(TM)s access to education, refuses to be sanguine about the future and efficacy of fair trade, âeoeI donâe(TM)t know how long the list of prosperous fair trade cooperatives and associations would be, but Iâe(TM)m thinking itâe(TM)s not very long.âe

However, in the same chapter, we are told that after the exodus of the Hummingbird Hershey Company, who could only harvest 20,000 lbs. of cocoa in their last season in Belize, just five years later, under fair trade, Hargrove has received orders for 700,000 lbs. In the early 1990s, the Toledo farmers, who were hugely indebted to Hummingbird Hershey, were ready to harvest their first GMO crop, but the multi-national who, in 1988, sold them the planting program and vowed to buy the crop at the market value of $1.70 lb., left these farmers high and dry, when by 1993 they were willing to pay no more than a penurious $0.50 lb. The farmers were left with crops too expensive to harvest and a landscape poisoned by pesticides and nitrates.

Off tells us that, âeoeBy 1993, the TCGA was bankrupt. And the dream of escaping poverty through the miracle crop that their ancestors had farmed two thousand years before was shattered. Enter Green & Blacks âe¦ the leader of the fastest-growing sector of packaged foods in the world-organics.âe Their market share was huge and so was their appetite for fair trade cocoa beans.

Hargroveâe(TM)s main complaint is with the paperwork and bureaucracy he must deal with and the fact that few farmers possess the literacy skills required to do their documentation, a position Off supports: âeoeA tour of the cocoa fields around Toledo bears out what Hargrove is saying âe¦ An American peace Corps worker spent half a day trying to explain to the farmers what âe~alphabetical orderâe(TM) meansâe âe" a comment that manages to insult the intelligence of the reader and the farmers simultaneously. Now thereâe(TM)s economy for you. Perhaps training some of those newly educated bright young Belizeans as clerical support staff to the TCGA and the farmers might be an option, as well as getting the manufacturers to bear some of the certification costs that add such great retail value to their products, but I digress.

Offâe(TM)s attitude goes from apathy about the progress fair trade has brought to Belize, to antipathy toward the consumers of their products, tritely characterizing them as âeoenutrition-obsessed Birkenstock-wearersâe and âeoeconsumers obsessed with an anti-globalization, small-is-beautiful ethos,âe oh dear, you mean the kind of people who might buy this book?

However, what I really found objectionable was Offâe(TM)s conspicuous silence on Hargroveâe(TM)s condescending characterization of the population heâe(TM)s supposed to help; âeoethe Maya donâe(TM)t seem amenable to change. The farmers know what they must know about farming cocoa âe¦ but their collective wisdom comes to them naturally, through instinct and practical experience. They have no knowledge of the science of organics âe¦ A-B-C labelling requirements, nor are they much interested in learning systems they donâe(TM)t really understand.âe

Hargroveâe(TM)s specious denigration of the less intensive and sustainable agricultural practices of the Belizean farmers which allowed them to avoid the trap of crushing debt created by GMO programs of intensive planting, pesticide and herbicide use which leaves the stock vulnerable to swollen shoot disease, an epidemic currently being experienced by the Côte dâe(TM)Ivoire farmers, smacks of White Manâe(TM)s Burden syndrome. Didnâe(TM)t we give that up?

On April 10, 2006, Yousouff Nâe(TM)Djore, national coordinator of Ivory Coastâe(TM)s Child Labour Monitoring System Project, told Reuters that chocolate manufacturers and exporters must fund a campaign to end child labour on the countryâe(TM)s cocoa farms. The government is waiting for its foreign partners to pony-up their share of the $15 million needed to extend the project to July 2008, when half the countryâe(TM)s cocoa sector could be covered by the fair trade certification demanded by consumer groups. Anaproci, the cocoa farmerâe(TM)s union supported these demands during their October 2006 strike for fairer prices and ethical labour practices.

Only time will tell if this is a portent of real progress, or if Carol Offâe(TM)s pessimistic view is the more prescient, âeoeGrowing beans without pesticides and being able to send your children to school is, of course, superior to what farmers experienced earlier. But how long before the bubble bursts and the fickle consumer wants something else?âe

Itâe(TM)s enough to make a girl throw her hands up in despair, kick-off her Birkenstocks and reach for the nearest Hershey bar.âe"Loretta Frances White

related items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.