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78th Annual Summer Conference, August 6–9, 2009

Closing Keynote Address
The Global Politics of Food: What Now?

Speaker: CAROL OFF, journalist, co-host of CBC Radio’s As It Happens and author of Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet (bio)

Summary by Justin Ma, CIPA Youth Scholarship Recipient

Carol Off closed our conference with her investigation of chocolate, which is fully explored in her book, "Bitter Chocolate." Life's simple pleasures are not so simple, and in the past four days, we have learned that food is as complex and controversial as any other topic. The story of chocolate is no different. What we see as a children's treat, an innocent pleasure for Easter, Christmas or birthdays is in reality mired in corruption and slavery. Chocolate has been cultivated for centuries, but through its history has always been consumed by the elites and produced by those less fortunate. Indeed, it may be said that slavery has long been the secret ingredient in chocolate.

Off's investigation focused on the Ivory Coast, where nearly half of the world's chocolate is produced. Virtually all of Canada's chocolate comes from this area as well. The Ivory Coast was, for some time, considered a great economic success story in Africa, but investigations by various NGOs soon revealed the troubling nature. Like much of the African economic problems, a major turning point began as debt ridden governments sought the aid of the World Bank. At the time, Washington, under Reagan, as well as England, under Thatcher, had considerable power over World Bank policy. In order for African countries to receive economic assistance, it was required that structural adjustment programs be implemented. Currency devaluation, elimination of farmer subsidies, and unregulated free market policies were enforced. As a result, in the Ivory Coast farmer co-ops were dismantled and the price of cocoa dropped. A realignment in the economy of cocoa followed, with cartels taking over the farms. No longer able to earn a living wage, farmers sought cheap labour; first from their own children, and soon after the indentured labour of other children.

Today, children are regularly smuggled into these farms not only from all over the Ivory Coast, but also from Mali and other surrounding countries. Farmers search for children to work their farms, but often, parents willingly give up their children to work, as they are faced with incredible situations of family poverty and illness and seldom have any knowledge of the conditions at the farms. Many times, children themselves volunteer to work at these cocoa farms because they do not see any other hope for survival. In interviews with border patrols of the Ivory Coast and Mali, Off discovered that even when children were caught being trafficked to these farms, the same children would return to the border, en route to the farms, several days later. Children working on these farms are horribly mistreated. They are often beaten, poorly fed, and live in inhumane conditions. Malnutrition, abuse, and poor conditions often lead to injuries, disease, mental health issues, and even death. Trapped in a classic system of indentured labour, these children are generally forced to pay for their lodging and food as well as any “misdemeanors” they may cause out of their earnings. This typically means that children earn little or nothing for their families and actually wind up indebted to the farm owner, postponing or eliminating their ability to leave the farms.

The government is far from oblivious of the system of cocoa production and perpetuates the problem with an extremely sophisticated system of corruption. Essentially functioning as a criminal organization, government authorities embezzle profits made by farmers. The money is used to increase the wealth of the elite and purchase weapons, which are used to keep farmers from rebelling, often through ethnic cleansing. Off spoke of a journalist who uncovered much of the corruption. He was described as “the man who knew too much” and it is believed that he was murdered by the Ivory Coast government.

The corporations involved in chocolate distribution, among them Cargill, ADM, and Cadbury, have similarly remained complacent in eliminating slavery. In 2001, the US Congress began an effort to allow the labeling of “slave free” chocolate. Despite passing through the House of Representatives, the twenty billion dollar chocolate industry effectively derailed the labeling effort through a massive lobbying effort.

Fair Trade has often been cited as a potential solution to the problem, but Off remains critical of the Fair Trade label. While Fair Trade farming communities are much better, with clean water and schools, they remain an extremely small number. Furthermore, they are mired in a huge bureaucracy, which is what makes Fair Trade work. The required amount of paperwork and costs involved in becoming Fair Trade are difficult for most farmers to adhere to. Off believes that Fair Trade is unrealistic as a final solution and is only a stop gap. Off's greatest worry is that Fair Trade will encourage complacency among those interested in solving problems by diverting their attention from true solutions. Despite the power of consumers to vote with what they buy, Off explains that it is ultimately our power of citizenship that will allow us to effect the change necessary. Corporations are able to react quickly, and despite good corporate practices of many organizations, their primary motivation remains profits and not social justice. Only improved governance and laws will produce the end solution.