Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off

Random House Canada, 2006, 326 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-679-31319-2

If you think my online bibliomania is obnoxious, imagine how I must be in everyday life.  Friends, family and colleagues have come to dread my frequent visits to the bookstore, as I cannot stop myself from showing off my latest discoveries: “Look at this book!  Isn’t that cool?”  Most of them humour me (what else can they do?), but showing off Carol Off’s Bitter Chocolate and explaining what it’s about (“The exploitation of third-world cocoa farmers!”) got me some unusual push-back: “No! I don’t want to hear about chocolate exploitation!  I like chocolate!  I want to keep enjoying chocolate!

The good news, I suppose is that it’s hard to be a semi-cognizant first-worlder these days without having internalized the notion of inadvertent exploitation.  Practically every single product or service that relatively affluent member of the North-American middle class can enjoy depends on some degree of layered suffering.  The products we buy are shelved by minimum-wage employees without hope of a rewarding career; they’re brought to the store by overworked and underpaid transport workers; they’re made by child workers in oppressive factories; and don’t ask about the raw materials, because it gets even worse the deeper you dig in the production chain.

As it turns out, this is also the case for chocolate, and it has been so for a very long time.  As Off’s introductory history of chocolate makes clear, cacao has almost always been a luxury product, from its Mayan origins to its European introduction to its most recent transformation into the stuff that creates country-breaking market cartels.  The history of chocolate production has always involved overworked farmers who can’t afford the end product of their labour, colonial exploiters overexploiting growing regions before moving somewhere else, and of complicit hordes of consumers.  Like many tropical crops favoured by first-worlders, exploitation seems written deep into chocolate’s history.

Much of Bitter Chocolate revolves around Off’s first-hand reporting from Côte d’Ivoire, a cocoa-producing country that has suffered from its share of problems since its 1970s heyday.  She is able to link the country’s tumultuous history with the changing fortunes of its cocoa production, particularly how government attempts to guarantee a minimum income for farmers have led to reprisals by a coordinated group of buyers.  Since then, the one-sided market has led to predictable abuse: child labour bordering on indentured slavery, rampant corruption and warring political factions.  (Coincidentally, Côte d’Ivoire was heavily in the news as I was reading the book, reeling from the aftermath of a contested late-2010 elections.)  Off goes on the ground with pisteurs to interview local actors and report from the cacao frontlines.  She comes back with stories of disappeared journalists and government officials destroyed for their opposition to exploited labour.

None of this is pleasant, but none of this is unexpected either: It’s the same logic of exploitation that occurs whenever rich countries want something from poor countries.  Bitter Chocolate has the merit of making the links in the chain just a bit more explicit.

Nit-pickers will note a few errors, at least in the chocolate-jacketed hardcover edition: Off claims a etymological origin for cacahuatl that seems dubious to experts, and at one point makes the absurd claim that cacao “beans could grow anywhere within a twenty-kilometre belt north or south of the equator” [P.58], which is quite a bit different from the true figure of twenty degrees from the equator (or roughly 2210 kilometres).  I’m nit-picking, but that’s part of the obnoxious reviewing services I provide: If those were mistakes that I could catch after just a casual reading of Wikipedia’s cocoa bean page, what other errors are in the historical section of the book?

Still, there’s no denying the quality of the first-hand accounts, or the accumulation of historical evidence pointing to chocolate’s very bitter history.  It’s enough to make anyone feel slightly better about New Year’s resolutions to avoid chocolate, or be considerably less glib about the chocolate that they consume without a thought.  I personally ended up feeling less furious about the ways mass producers of chocolate are finding ways to reduce the actual chocolate content in the candies they present as chocolate; it also led me to buy a bar of “Maya Gold” fair-trade certified chocolate.  It’s not because we accept our role as unwitting exploiters that we can’t feel guilty about it.

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