Chocolate Nations

The Book of the Week is “Chocolate Nations, Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa” by Orla Ryan, published in 2011. This slim volume described the situations in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire at the book’s writing, with regard to growing the crop that ultimately becomes chocolate. Both countries had command economies and a large number of farmers with small landholdings growing the cocoa-bean trees.

Ghana has grown cocoa at least since the late 1800’s. Even after it declared its independence from Great Britain in 1957, it had a series of tyrannical leaders, each replacing the next via coups. They kept the farmers poverty-stricken by setting the price the government paid for cocoa.  Some farmers illegally sold their harvests to Cote d’Ivoire for better prices. Around 2009, Ghana was producing approximately one fifth of the world’s cocoa; Cote d’Ivoire, about one third.

Even after independence in 1960, the latter’s former colonizer, France, invested in cocoa farming there. However, the dictator became well-liked by encouraging laborers from Burkina Faso and Mali to farm cocoa and coffee in his country. He gave land to those from the Baoule tribe who tilled it.  His excessive spending to support his lifestyle and that of his loyal servants, resulted in huge debts, which he tried to reduce by cutting wholesale prices paid to cocoa farmers.  The nation saw a bloody civil war from 2000 to 2003.

In the first decade of the 21st century, hysteria ruled the airwaves in the United States over the accusation of abusive child labor on the cocoa farms. It was unclear whether the accusation was true, as data were anecdotal, ulterior motives abounded among the accusers (such as NGOs, tabloid reporters and even a politician), and the culture of the cocoa growers provided plausible denial that truant children were being enslaved. For, farming families tended to be large so that the kids’ assistance could help keep the family in business.

It appears that cocoa farming is unlikely to change significantly in the near future in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire because “For smallholders, the cocoa market can seem little more than a plaything in the hands of a few large companies and speculators.”

Read the book to learn more details.