Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate charts the unsavoury history of chocolate, dating back from the early days when indigenous peoples knew it was the bomb but Europeans (who hadn’t yet discovered that combined with sugar it was heaven) couldn’t fathom the interest. It follows it through to the present-day big-business bullies who continue to turn a blind eye to child slavery and other awfulness in order to keep their supply of cocoa beans cheap.
It’s sickening stuff, and appears at odds with the delectable flavours of the chocolate and the slick packaging and marketing campaigns that have us salivating over it and hankering for ever more. And it’s kind of ironic that the people—read: children—whose forced labour brings this goodness to our shelves and our tastebuds don’t know about and never get to eat the chocolate fruits of their labour. I’m feeling particularly guilty given that I ate enough Red Tulip rabbits in the lead-up to and over Easter to be the eating equivalent of Myxomatosis.
Ever since reading Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (twice now, actually), I’ve been unable to shake the sense that everything that’s wrong with the world can be traced back to the West. It’s just that, as the adage notes, history is written by the winners, and for that reason so we rarely glimpse anything but the wholesome projection they’d like us to.
Which is why they’re nervous about journalists poking around and documentaries being filmed—both reveal a seedy side to cocoa bean production, which includes enslaved children working for no money and almost no food, the unethical farmers being crunched themselves by militia and corrupt officials who expect payoffs, fights over land that has been in families for generations due to new laws refuting immigrants’ rights, and wars and genocide as a direct result of this land and wealth scrabble.
Meanwhile large chocolate companies and governments stand back, actively turn a blind eye, and let this play out before pouncing on low prices and desperate people. And then they cry poor to governments when these governments try to make a move to ensure all chocolate must be human-slavery free. They can do this; they just don’t want to.
Perhaps saddest of all is that children from Mali, the poorest of the poor African nations, often go to Cote D’Ivoire to work because they heard about a boy who went and came back with a bike. If they do come back to their families, they are broken boys who’ve experienced all manner of abuse and horror. They certainly don’t come back cashed-up and sporting a shiny new bicycle.
I’m not selling this book well, and that’s perhaps because I’m disillusioned that the apparently oh-so-tasty chocolate that is marketed and sold to us as innocuous, feel-good treats are anything but that. I’m shocked and saddened that the low shelf costs comes at a high human one.
I’d recommend reading Bitter Chocolate to understand what’s involved with that tasty treat we enjoy, often mindlessly. I’d also recommend applying pressure to big chocolate manufacturers to change their ways through letters and the like. And I’d recommend voting with your dollars and your feet and buying only chocolate that is organic and fair trade.