Tuesday, 14 March 2017

A Bitter, Sweet, Chocolate Forest

Cocoa Pods
Ghana's main export is cocoa, the bean that we know and love as the foundation of chocolate! My work with women farmers took me into the jungle of the Eastern Volta Region to meet farmers and learn about the cash crop that had taken over much of Western Africa's agricultural landscape. Most of the farmers I met had never even seen a chocolate bar, let alone tasted one, a product of the bitter sweet tale of cocoa in Africa.

As we drove along the red dirt road my colleague pointed out the window "that's all cocoa." I stared into the forest not understanding, it didn't smell like the sweet scent of the Hershey factory I remembered as a kid driving through Smith Falls, Ontario. An unassuming farm appeared through the trees, we parked along the piles of ripening cocoa pods, remnants of the days harvest. We walked past the plywood bins where beans were fermented and the bamboo boards used for drying them afterwards and walked on to the nursery. A worker handed me an opened pod she was taking beans from to plant into plastic bags of soil, "eat it" she told me. I popped the fresh bean, coated in thick, creamy-white membrane into my mouth. It also tasted nothing like chocolate and I spat it out after a few chews, the purple contents sour and definitely an acquired taste.

Ripe Cocoa Pod
You always hear about special Belgian chocolates or quality Swiss chocolates... but these European companies that have grown famous for their chocolate production don't actually grow the beans that get transformed into the worlds famous treat. In fact, 16 out of the top 20 chocolate consuming countries are European. The Swiss alone consume up to 22lbs of the sweet stuff per person per year. It turns out cocoa is pretty good for you too, flavonoids found in cocoa lower cholesterol it was even touted as a medicine for TB and cholera in the 19th century but we now know that was mainly because it helped people gain weight quickly. If you look further at the prolific-ness of European chocolate companies however, you can trace their success to colonial rule and further to the exploitation of indentured workers and children.

The Spanish first discovered a hot cocoa beverage mixed with local herbs and spices being drunk by the Inca and Aztecs in South America. Chiefs and Kings drank the liquid drink as a tonic, an aphrodisiac and supposed male enhancement tool.  When they brought cocoa to Europe it was an instant sensation and the popularity of chocolate has been ever increasing. Since Cocoa trees were introduced to Africa in the 17th century, production exploded and rich European land owners were the main benefactors. The plantations they ran were worked by minimally paid and enslaved workers, a bitter taste in the history or a sweet treat. Cote D'Ivoire and Ghana are now the worlds largest producers together growing more than half of all the cocoa the world consumes.

Cocoa Tree's
Unfortunately labour exploitation and chocolate go hand in hand. If you are eating a $2 nestle chocolate bar it is likely the farmer who grew that cocoa is making less than .10 cents of that. Not only are farmers often underpaid but the industry is ripe with forced labour and even child slaves. If you need another reason to stop patronising business' like Nestle check out The Dark Side of Chocolate for free on Youtube to delve further into corruption in the cocoa industry.  Though we did see children amongst the farmers, it was difficult to assess their employment status. Could they be helping a parent after school or was this a full time job I knew not, but their hands were involved in the cocoa's cultivation and harvesting.

Climate change is a also a threat to future cocoa production as the beans can only grow in a narrow corridor around the equator. The crop remains vulnerable to the expected effects of global warming and the increase of drought and pests. If temperatures continue to rise and vary, the crop may become inviable which means, no more chocolate for anyone. As it is mainly exported (for little return to the farmer) if the market were to crash a farmer could live off of the cash crop and instead would need to supplement with other crops and income streams to survive.

Cocoa Nursery
Working with women farmers we must also consider the gendered component of cocoa farming. Most of Ghana's farmers are women, while most farm and land owners are men and traders and government continue to be male dominated. Women's work continues to be underpaid and undervalued and unconsidered in policy making, which was true in the cocoa forests I visited. Women will continue to play an important role in Ghana's development and through empowering them economically and socially they will continue to improve their lives and their families.

As I continue my work in introducing female empowerment, bookkeeping and marketing strategies to women farmers I will also be researching with by-products that can be sold locally or even wider to supplement their incomes. The take away for you the reader is hopefully that you might consider the source of your chocolate the next time you go for a cocoa fix. With so many of us concerned about sourcing and labelling, Chocolate should not be exempted from this trend. Consider Fair Trade, Slave Free Chocolate and ethically sourced chocolate companies. Those extra few dollars you could be spending might be the difference between an enslaved child and a fairly paid household income.