Awwhhh…tomorrow is the day we hope to enjoy a chocolate or two–and if it comes as a gift from that special someone it’s even sweeter! I love good chocolates. I especially appreciate those chocolate artisans who take their candy making very seriously. There is quite a difference between the chocolate we can find in any convenience store (wrapped in all the different varieties of coatings and papers) and the chocolates which come from special companies who source their cocoa beans from multiple different countries, ensuring it’s organic (without pesticides and fungicides) and do not tolerate the practice of child-forced labor.

The thought of children working in this hazardous industry is disturbing at best.  Most in this business use the pesticides/herbicides and these children are mixing and applying them without wearing protective clothing. They also clear the vegetation and harvest the pods using machetes. Children 15-17 may be able to handle this skill but many of these children are under the age of 14. To read the articles about children who have multiple wounds on their legs where they have cut themselves and then are still carrying heavy loads for long distances where they get wounds all over their shoulders also is heart breaking.

The Save the Children Fund, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture and other organizations have investigated the prevalence of child labor in the cocoa industry. In West Africa alone they found 284,000 children working in hazardous conditions. 153,000 of these children applied pesticides without protective equipment; others picked pods and opened them to get the beans. 64% of the children were younger than 14 and 40% of them were girls. These children often began working at 6am, worked 12-hour days and were beaten regularly.

Another heart-wrenching problem in the cocoa bean business with some of these countries is very often these children are enslaved. The U.S. State Department estimated there were 15,000 child slaves in just one year in one of the countries–the Ivory Coast. These enslaved children are often from poor families or the slums and are sold for just a few dollars. Their parents tell them they would be able to find work and send money home. In Mali, the Malian officials had to rescue boys who had not been paid for five years and were beaten if they tried to run away. Other times children who were begging for food were lured from bus stations and sold as slaves to harvest cocoa beans (cotton and coffee beans also).

The blame for this slavery in cocoa production has been passed from one group to the next. Those who sell the children to the farmers claim they don’t know about the slavery. The governments accuse the foreigners of using and selling slaves because the multinational chocolate companies demand the cocoa prices stay low which keep the farmers in poverty. These farmers can’t afford to pay workers fair prices for the demanding work of harvesting. The prices would have to rise by 10 times in order to pay farmers and their workers fair prices.

The chocolate companies say they tell the suppliers they want beans which are not produced by slaves but there is no way to actually be sure they are telling the truth. And, finally consumers of these giant chocolate companies, by and large, have no idea this type of thing is happening when they open a bag of yummy chocolate treats for their children who radiate delight at the prospect of enjoying a chocolate treat.

There’s not an easy answer for this tragedy I know. Its heart sickening children are being abused in this way so rich countries can have chocolate all year long for every occasion. But, we can make strides to helping by purchasing chocolate from responsible companies (takes some effort to learn which those are!), and from companies who use organic beans, organic cane sugar and that’s it. When a label on a chocolate bar (or bag of chocolate candies) has a long list of ingredients (chemicals) what we are eating isn’t really chocolate–it’s a chocolate-like substance. Getting familiar with what chocolate really tastes like is a pleasure and doesn’t have the harmful effects like the candies that are produced with refined sugar and varied chemicals which make it taste great and, of course, is addicting.

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