bittersweet

Why the video of Ivorian cacao farmers finally trying chocolate is so distasteful

August 4, 2014
August 4, 2014

Recently, there’s been a video going around of cacao farmers in Côte d’Ivoire “tasting chocolate for the first time,” amazed by what they’re eating. Though the video touches on some aspects of the economics of the situation—closing with a “heartwarming” scene where the men enjoy their €2 bar of chocolate before heading back to work where, as the video notes, they’ll earn about €7 a day—it struck a nerve with me. The video offers a pretty uncritical picture of the way cacao production affects the laborers who give us our cheap chocolate.

I’m a graduate student studying primate behavior in Taï National Park in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, just on the border of Côte d’Ivoire and Liberia. The men employed by the project I work for are cacao farmers when they’re not in the forest taking complex observational data on primate behavior and ecology, and I had a few problems with the story the video offered.

Most of the people in this region are farmers with 5-10 acres in cacao or rubber production, and a much smaller subsistence plot with manioc, cassava, rice, pineapple, avocado, and oranges. Cacao is a labor-intensive crop. Women and kids go out to the farms regularly with their machetes and pesticides. Once a year, the pods get harvested from the trees. They’re then cut open and the cacao bean is pulled out of the membrane and left on tarps in the sun to dry (everything smells like vinegar as the beans ferment), before being bagged up in 50-liter sacks, and then brought to central cacao-grower organizations. If you’re in a slightly more developed part of the country or part of a wealthy organization, you can get your cacao loaded onto trucks to bring them to a central location. Otherwise, we see men with these big sacks on bicycles pushing them from the village to their closest big town. Where I work, guys are generally walking 15-20 km. Once they get their cacao beans to the organization, they’re at the mercy of the buyers, who generally set a price per kilo, and sometimes set a quota for the amount they’re buying from particular regions depending on supply and demand.

Cacao is an attractive crop because demand is fairly steady, though prices are dropping, and farms remain productive for a really long time. The problem is that cacao is only harvested once a year, and then farmers have to rely on that lump sum of cash to get them through a whole year. This is particularly difficult because mobile banking hasn’t really penetrated the market, and what (few) banks there are in rural southwestern Cote d’Ivoire aren’t really set up to cater to small-scale cash crop farmers. Some people are relying on the long-term prospects of rubber, which is currently getting better prices/kilo and can be harvested year-round. This makes it a lot easier to be sure farmers will have cash on hand to pay for things like their kids’ school fees, uniforms, books, and supplies which must be purchased year-round. The problem is that rubber plantations take a while to come into production (5-7 years). So to transition, people are cutting down currently-producing cacao trees, and then crossing their fingers for 6 years while earning much less money, hoping that the price of rubber won’t crash when all the new trees start producing, and that there’s still a market in the future.

The region is also still politically unstable, and conflicts over land rights are a major part of that. A lot of the men I work with either fled, or sent their families, to refugee camps in Liberia during the recent crisis in 2010-2012. During that time, people from northern Cote d’Ivoire moved south and took residence in these abandoned farms. So even now, two years after “la Crise” officially ended, people still in refugee camps in Liberia occasionally sneak across the border to harass or kill people they suspect took over their land. The tension between southwestern Ivorians who define themselves as true Ivorians in opposition to Ivorian migrants from the north who have ethnic roots in Burkina Faso mimics the larger political climate—especially as the country approaches the first elections since the conflict in 2010. In addition, the effects of climate change are making the rains less predictable. The rainy season normally goes from August-October (more or less); we didn’t get rain in 2013 until almost the end of November, which had serious consequences both for people’s cash crops and subsistence crops. The forested buffer zone around the national park I work in has now been entirely converted to fallow fields, cacao, coffee, and rubber plantations. Food prices are rising, commodity prices are falling, and the situation is looking grim.

These are smart, sophisticated adult men (and women, though fewer women own their own land—they mostly just do a lot of the labor on their husbands’ and fathers’ farms). They’re plugged into their local economies, they have a sense of larger global economic forces, and they know what’s going on. In the forest at the field station, we listen to BBC World Service in French on the satellite radio. They’d ask me cutting and incisive questions about American political situations (they found the government shutdown as ridiculous as I did), they religiously followed the situation in Egypt with the Muslim brotherhood, mourned Mandela, and trash talked other football teams in anticipation of the World Cup. They also knew what chocolate was (and I suspect the guys in the video did too, but were in on the joke with the producers). When they can afford to buy it, their kids eat a knock-off version of Nutella called Chocomax, which is very oily and contains what is likely the bare minimum of cocoa powder that can still function as chocolate.

I didn’t find this video touching or heartwarming. This is the way an extractive (exploitative) cash-crop economy works. It’s not cute or endearing that these men who are working incredibly hard have never, or rarely, had the opportunity to sample the end-product of their labor. It’s not touching that you have to go to the big city to find chocolate, and that only a little of it is locally produced (Milka and Cadbury are popular in Abidjan; Ivorian brands less so). It wouldn’t be touching if you showed a cell-phone to a coltan miner in DRC and said “Look at this amazing machine your backbreaking labor in dangerous conditions enabled!” It wouldn’t be touching if you went to a diamond miner in Sierra Leone with your sparkly pretty engagement ring and said, totally amazed, “But why don’t you have one?” Consumers in the developed world should be smarter than that. The producers in the developing world—the folks enabling our lifestyles—certainly are.

This post is adapted from the author’s comment on MetaFilter. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com

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