Xander Wells, age five, is spreading the word about Fair Trade chocolate. It’s October 31st, 2009, in Oak Park Illinois, and he is part of a group of thousands of people across the United States and Canada participating in Reverse Trick or Treating. With his mother’s help, he is handing out glossy information cards with a Fair Trade chocolate attached. The people on the receiving end are bemused by the gesture. They laugh. They make it a point to read more about the topic later. Later, they read the cards, and they understand the seriousness behind Xander’s effort.
By Corey Hill
OCTOBER/NOVEMBER 2010 CONDUCIVE
Through Halloween post cards and downloadable flyers, San Francisco based human rights organization Global Exchange coordinated direct Fair Trade public education to a staggering 72,000 households in a single night in 2009. This message was further amplified by dozens of print, internet, blog, radio, and television media reports on Reverse Trick-or-Treating. The effort was a collaboration of seven major national/regional nonprofit organizations, and countless local Fair Trade Coalitions, schools, congregations, and individual families.
Why the massive effort? Two words: child slavery.
Child slavery is rampant in the cocoa industry. There are an estimated 150,000 child slaves in Cote d’Ivoire alone, part of an estimated 285,000 children working on cocoa plantations throughout Africa. Every day, slave traders sell human beings into servitude for as little as two or three dollars each. Giant multinational cocoa purchasers, well aware of the rampant abuses on cocoa plantations, push the price down so low that many farmers resort to child labor. In 2001, Pascal Affi N’ Guessan, Prime Minister of Cote d’Ivoire, the world’s number one producer of cocoa, named a price ten times higher than the (then) current price to ensure quality of life for Cote d’Ivoire’s farmers.
Free-market ideology has failed the cocoa producers of the region, leaving them left to fend for themselves in the chaotic environment of a worldwide commodities market, where fluctuating prices oftentimes dip below the cost of production. For substantial portions of the last decade, for instance, the worldwide commodity price for cocoa has been below the cost of production, almost guaranteeing the perpetuation of abusive labor practices in the region.
Also, as the governments of cocoa producing nations rely heavily on the income generated from cocoa production, when prices dive, social services in health and education are cut. In cocoa producing nations, failure to set a minimum fair price hurts not only the cocoa producers themselves, but all of society.
Children, unlike heads of multinational corporations, seem to have a fundamental understanding of the concept of fairness. Xander Wells points out that people should buy Fair Trade chocolate “cause it had farmers who got paid enough money.” Xander also stressed repeatedly the importance of correcting a worrisome social injustice that he found very troubling…cocoa producing families have typically never tasted chocolate. “Some people have no chocolate and they would like to try it.”
Unless there are big changes in the way chocolate business gets done, those families might have to wait some time to try. Chocolate manufacturers have a way of insuring that prices stay low, despite the devastating impact upon the farmers of West Africa.
Hershey’s and M&M’s Mars, two of the world’s largest chocolate companies, have refused to take substantial steps to insure that child slavery and other abuses are eliminated from cocoa plantations. Multi-million dollar lobbying efforts protect their bottom lines and guarantee that the plantations’ horrendous conditions remain under wraps.
They know the drill. They’ve been stalling for decades. In 2001, threatened with the passage of a measure in the United States House of Representatives that would have called for manufacturers to label their products ‘slave free’ or not, the United States chocolate industry fought back with a fierce lobbying effort, arguing that the ‘slave free’ label requirement would actually end up hurting the cocoa producers of West Africa. Hiring Bob Dole and George Mitchell (Senate Majority Leader from 1989 to 1994) to lobby on their behalf, the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association successfully defeated passage of the bill.
Later that year, bowing to intense international pressure, chocolate manufacturers agreed to the ‘Harkin-Engel’ protocol, named for Senator Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel, who facilitated its creation. Major signatories included the Chocolate Manufacturer’s Association, Hershey’s, M&M’s Mars, the government of Cote d’Ivoire, and the child labor office of the International Labor Organization.
Critics of the Harkin-Engel protocol note that the measure, the only major effort to date by manufacturers to reduce suffering in the region, does nothing to prevent the root cause of the problems in the cocoa industry: unfair pricing.
That’s the core concept behind Fair Trade: people deserve to be paid a fair wage for their products. Fair Trade certification guarantees minimum pricing and a better life for cocoa farmers. And that’s why thousands of children and their parents are knocking on doors, engaging their neighbors, their friends. “Imagine this is your child,” they might say.
This civic engagement aspect drew the attention of Equal Exchange’s Rodney North to the project. Equal Exchange designed and printed informational cards, donated chocolate, and shipped the Reverse Trick-or-Treating kits free of charge to schools, congregations and schools across the country. “Equal Exchange was very happy and proud to participate. I loved the idea of regular folks having a straightforward opportunity to bring up this issue with their neighbors and at the same time introduce a positive step forward in the form of a tasty piece of Fair Trade chocolate. For us, the thing that demonstrated the significance of this project was the many letters from the participants thanking us for helping provide this opportunity to engage in this important work.”
The industry has shown signs that they are listening to the demands of consumers. Major industry players, like Green and Black’s, and Cadbury (UK) have agreed to source Fair Trade cocoa. And Ben and Jerry’s ice cream has made a commitment to going completely Fair Trade by 2013.
But still the chocolate giants don’t make any legitimate moves to eliminate child slavery. Hershey’s, despite saving money by moving most production facilities to Mexico, still can’t find a few extra cents per pound to ensure that nine year olds aren’t the ones harvesting the cocoa pods.
They probably won’t be able to resist the pressure to go Fair Trade for much longer. The next generation of chocolate lovers will bring a much greater knowledge of product origins than those who came before. People want to know more about where things come from, and the story of cocoa right now isn’t so sweet.
The kids get it.
Like many other participants, Oliver and his mother prepared for Reverse Trick-or-Treating by reading Global Exchange’s Fair Trade chocolate curriculum for children. “The day before Halloween, I sat down with my son and went over that wonderful activity book together and by the end he was so jazzed that he was going to be giving out Fair Trade chocolates that he was jumping up and down, waving his hands in the air,” recounted Oliver’s mom Joan. “And I said ‘Do you support Fair Trade?” and he shouted ‘yes!’ and I said ‘why?’ and he said ‘because it doesn’t make kids work in the farms!”
For more information on Reverse Trick or Treating, click here.
Corey Hill originally hails from the East Coast, a graduate of the University of Central Florida. He is now a Bay Area-based political activist and writer–working for Global Exchange, a San Francisco based human rights organization, and writing and editing for Conducive Chronicle and Conducive Magazine. His writing covers a broad range of topics, from local politics to Fair Trade, and has been included in lifestyle magazines, daily papers, and on the web.
I want to thank Adrienne Fitch from Global Exchange, Adrienne Fitch Frankel who contributed material for this article.