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40% of cocoa picked by slaves

The rich taste of chocolate has long inspired intense devotion. But the chocolate industry is now facing charges that may sour consumers’ taste buds. Two documentary filmmakers say that at least some of the workers who harvest the cocoa bean from which chocolate is made are kept as slaves, locked up at night and beaten if they try to flee. Dennis Murphy reports.

WHAT OTHER SWEET can match its sensuality? It is the gift of lovers.

So it wasn’t happenstance that in the recent movie “Chocolate,” battered souls are mended quite magically by, yes, tastes of chocolate.

Most of us love the stuff. But before it’s processed, chocolate is beans, found inside the pod of the cocoa tree, grown in countries around the equator. And in the woods where these beans are grown, documentarians have uncovered a startling secret.

British filmmakers Brian Woods and Kate Blewett will tell you about men who are modern-day slaves, slaves of the chocolate industry, virtually imprisoned and unpaid in cocoa plantations up and down the West African nation of the Ivory Coast — the country that supplies the beans for almost half the world’s chocolate.

Kate Blewett: “We literally walked onto plantations and found slave after slave after slave.”

Dennis Murphy: “I think when Americans think of slavery they think of people shackled, abducted, sold and owned by another person. Is that what contemporary slavery is in your view?”

Blewett: “Slavery as we define it in the film is a situation where people are held against their will. Secondly, they live with violence, or the threat of violence, and, thirdly, they receive no money.”

Woods and Blewett set out in the Ivory Coast with just a vague suspicion of abuse in the cocoa industry, and they found evidence of it all too easily.

Brian Woods: “It was literally a case of getting on the ground, finding cocoa plantations and just walking in.”

Most of the plantations there are small, a few dozen acres. The laborers are young men from neighboring countries like Mali and Burkina Faso, desert-like places where to many, escaping their country’s poverty seems the only option.

Kate Blewett: “The boys come willingly because they surely believe in the area they’re working in, they can’t get any work at all. So it can’t get much worse.”

But when the filmmakers talked to some of those young workers while the plantation owner was out of sight they found that for all of them it had gotten much worse. They’d become slaves. They’d been tricked.

Question: “How long have you been working on this plantation?”

Answer (translated): “For one year.”
Question: “How much have you been paid?”
Answer (translated): “Nothing.”

Another answer (translated): “Only God knows the treatment we endure here. I left my country in order to earn money. I work hard for nothing.”

The plantation owner may give them a hard-luck story, such as that the price of cocoa beans is down and he can’t afford to pay them, or they’re told they have to work off the price of the truck ride down to the Ivory Coast, but the result is the same — long days of backbreaking work, then they are locked inside a barracks at night.

Kate Blewett: “And that is the cycle, day in and day out, year in and year out, without any money.”

Blewett and Woods met 19 young men who were freed when Ivory Coast police, on a tip from the embassy of Mali, raided just such a plantation. They had cut cocoa pods for years and had never been paid.

And when a few young men tried to run away, the consequences for those who were caught were brutal. The filmmakers got a demonstration of the beatings they received.

These pictures were taken in the 21st century, not 1853.
(excerpt from the documentary)
Question: “Your body is covered in scars. Tell us what happened to you.”

Answer: (translated): “The work was too hard for me, so I ran away. Then they caught me, brought me back and beat me.”

The filmmakers confronted the plantation owner, who readily admitted the men hadn’t been getting paid because business was lousy and said he locked them up at night for their own protection. As for the boy’s injuries ...

Brian Woods: “He told us, ‘Ah, they fight between themselves. These bruises are the result of a lack of supervision because I was away that day and they — he wasn’t working hard enough — so they beat him to within an inch of his life.’”

In total, they talked to workers on 12 farms and say they found evidence of slave labor on all but one.


Larry Graham: “Our whole industry was aghast. We were shocked.”
Larry Graham is president of the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, whose members include Hershey, M&M/Mars and Nestle USA.

Last October, under pressure from the U.S. Congress, the chocolate manufacturers announced a plan to set aside millions of dollars to help African cocoa farmers eliminate slavery. The first step — a survey of 3,000 farms in the Ivory Coast to get an accurate look at the problem.

Dennis Murphy: “In the end, you may get a big, fat report that gives you a snapshot of what’s going on. But wouldn’t it be more effective just to go to the Ivory Coast and say, ‘Look we’re going to stop buying your beans until you clean your house here’?”

Larry Graham: “Well, I think we’re not just looking for surveys here. What’s causing the problem? Where is the problem? Then, working with farmer co-ops, working with the Ivorian government, working with human rights organizations, we can help to find solutions to the problem.”

The plan is a joint effort by chocolate makers,
Congress and anti-slavery advocates, and it has the support of the Ivory Coast government.

And while Ivory Coast government officials call the allegations of slave labor “wildly exaggerated,” they say they are increasing border patrols and that last year they helped send home more than 200 illegal child-laborers from Mali and Burkina Faso.

Filmmakers Blewett and Woods reject any idea that the chocolate slaves are victims of culture and gloomy economics. Outrage, they think, should begin with chocolate lovers, the consumers who can best pressure chocolate makers into creating a workforce free of slavery.

Toward that end, Woods translates a message from a worker to chocoholics everywhere.

Brian Woods: “The exact words were, ‘If I had something to say to the people who are eating chocolate, they would not be good words. They enjoy something I suffer to make. They are eating my flesh.’”

What the filmmakers and chocolate makers agree on is that a boycott of chocolate would only depress the already low price of cocoa beans even more, creating more hardship in Africa.