The human cost of chocolate

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The human cost of chocolate

child pushing cocoa beans

Children as young as 7 years old work from sunrise to sunset on cocoa farms.

Like many (most?) people, I just love chocolate.  That meant when I went vegan several years ago, I had to make some adjustments.  Fortunately, it isn’t all that difficult to find vegan chocolate, since lots of dark chocolate is vegan by default.  (That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check the ingredients lists, though; some companies put in butter fat or milk proteins, etcetera, as filler.)  So if cows aren’t suffering for our chocolate, does that make it cruelty-free?

Way back in May of 2011, we invited lauren ornelas, founder and director of the Food Empowerment Project, to speak at the Vancouver Public Library.  (You can read about her visit here.)  F.E.P. focuses on all forms of food injustice, and because the consumption of animal products is one of the leading causes of human and animal exploitation as well as environmental destruction, the group promotes a vegan diet.  During lauren’s speech, she also discussed a number of other important topics: the abuse of migrant workers who harvest our vegetables and fruits, companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé, whose water privatization schemes destroy communities and livelihoods, environmental racism, the total lack of accessibility to fresh, healthy, affordable food in many impoverished or otherwise disadvantaged populations, frequently among people of colour (a phenomenon known as “food deserts”),and much more.

Drissa with scars

"When people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh." -Drissa, a freed cocoa slave.

And of course, she talked about chocolate, or more specifically, chocolate slavery.  She told us about the countless children who are abducted from their homes or “sold” to traffickers by their own family members, usually under the pretense that the work will be safe and that they will receive an education.  Many of these children won’t see their families for years, others never see them again.  The work is not safe, of course–it’s incredibly dangerous, and not only because they are usually working with large, sharp machetes and breathing in industrial agricultural chemicals.  The workers are subject to beatings and whippings if they are too slow for the overseer’s liking.  Access to clean water is limited, and the food that is provided is usually the cheapest stuff available, such as corn paste and bananas.  Many sleep on planks of wood in small, windowless buildings.

For a little while before I saw lauren speak, I’d only been purchasing organic chocolate or chocolate with a “Fair Trade” label in the hopes that by doing so I was avoiding chocolate produced under inhumane conditions. But it turns out that even this isn’t always enough:

 There are many different labels on chocolate bars today, such as Fair Trade Certified, however, no single label can guarantee that the chocolate was made without the use of exploitive labor. In 2010, the founders of the Fair Trade Certification process had to suspend several of their West African suppliers due to evidence that they were using child labor. (more)

So what’s a vegan chocoholic to do?  First of all, F.E.P recommends avoiding any chocolate that comes from West Africa, as that is where slavery is the most pervasive.   (It’s also where about 75% of the world’s cocoa comes from.) Perhaps even more helpful to the average, busy person, however, is their Chocolate List. The list is under constant revision and getting longer all the time, and it features recommended companies as well as those that aren’t recommended–and why not. I encourage you to check it out and expand the circle of compassion!



November 29, 2012 at 11:38 am

Wow Becci. Thank you for sharing that info !!


November 29, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Thank you thank you: I am so glad to know this, having wondered about the proliferation of “Fair Trade” labels, and the way in which other good-word phrases (like your information on what constitutes “free range” in Canada)have been distorted.

The list is the best present!

Holiday vegan food drive! | Liberation BC blog

December 12, 2012 at 10:02 am

[…] what would be a suitable donation?   Fortunately the Food Empowerment Project (whose exposure of slavery in the chocolate industry I wrote about in November) has released a very handy list with just a few ideas: Soymilk, almond […]

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