With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, chocolate is definitely on the mind! As an ethical and compassionate person it’s important not to contribute to the harm of animals and that includes human animals. Unfortunately, chocolate has a dark history that harms many human animals. Before I get into the disappointing details, know that there are ethical choices you can make when selecting chocolate and I’ll address those options here as well.
History of Chocolate
The cacao bean originates from Mesoamerica where it was known as “xocoatl”. “The Olmecs of southern Mexico were probably the first to ferment, roast, and grind cacao beans for drinks and gruels, possibly as early as 1500 B.C.” according to Smithsonian Magazine. “After the Olmecs, the Maya of Guatemala, Yucatan, and the surrounding region incorporated cacao seed into religious life.” Cacao beans were used as a form of currency and made into a bitter drink consumed by people with status.¹
During colonization of the Maya and Aztec, the Spanish colonizers were introduced to Cacao. I’m using the word “introduced” loosely here as there’s a lack of information as to how the transactions occurred since historical accounts are passed down from the colonizers and not the colonized. My educated guess is that they weren’t particularly fair transactions since the colonizers wiped out the Aztec and Mayan civilizations shortly thereafter. Spanish Colonizers returned to Spain with cacao beans where they added sugar and created the first chocolate bar.²
Cacao beans are difficult to grow. They only grow in select areas near the equator and require a great amount of manual labor. Initially colonizers shipped African slaves to Mesoamerica to help with labor. All of Europe soon became obsessed with chocolate and to keep up with demand they added plantations in Africa.²
The Truth About Chocolate
Today it is estimated that 2 million children are enslaved in Africa to grow and harvest cacao beans.² 70% of the world’s chocolate is grown and harvested in West Africa where the worst forms of child and slave labor are taking place to make some of the world’s favorite chocolate bars.³ Child trafficking to West Africa from other parts of Africa, especially Mali, are commonplace.¹ I recommend watching the following documentary to learn more about the dark side of the chocolate industry: The Dark Side of Chocolate Documentary.
Selecting Ethical Chocolate
The Food Empowerment Project (FEP) has compiled a list of chocolate companies and categorized them by whether they feel comfortable recommending them or not. The purpose of the list is “to help people buy chocolate that does not involve the enslavement of human (children or adults) or non-human animals (such as cows and goats).”
For a company to make the Chocolate List they must offer at least one vegan option. There are unlisted companies, like Mars, because they offer no vegan options.
The first category on their list includes chocolate companies they “feel comfortable recommending.” FEPs explanation is as follows:
These are companies that make some (if not all) vegan chocolates. They have responded to our request for information about the country of origin for their cacao beans, and the beans were not sourced from areas in Western Africa where child labor and slavery is pervasive. If they source from Western Africa, they are worker-owned cooperatives and have been vetted by us.
Learn more about the various categories here.
Even though it’s quite a long (and growing) chocolate list, there is one company that stands out for their ethical practices above the rest: Equal Exchange. There’s a lot of controversy surrounding Fair Trade USA. The meaning and original principles of Fair Trade have been watered down in recent years. Equal Exchange is spearheading a campaign to help support small farmers most affected by these changes.
That’s a lot to take in! At the end of the day, we have a choice and a voice. I hope you’ll use the Chocolate List as a starting point for choosing more ethically sourced chocolate. In addition, I hope you’ll also use your voice to spread the word about the dark side of chocolate so we can all help make a difference to eventually end all forms of child and slave labor that still exist around the world (and unfortunately child slave labor is used for more than just chocolate – coffee, cane sugar, and rice – perhaps more on that later).
¹ Garthwaite, J. “We Know About the Earliest History of Chocolate.” Smithsonian Magazine. 2/12/15, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/archaeology-chocolate-180954243/#5V2UArvLkmV7udcQ.99
² Pucciarelli, D. “The History of Chocolate.” TedEd. 3/16/17, https://youtu.be/ibjUpk9Iagk
³ Ornelas, l. “Chocolate, Bananas, and Farm Workers’ rights, ft. lauren Ornelas of the Food Empowerment Project.” A Privileged Vegan. 12/22/16, https://youtu.be/bMLEtS2FIkM?t=4m11s