Over two-thirds of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa, where farmers with small plots of land depend upon the crop as their main source of income. It sends their kids to school, feeds and clothes their whole family, and pays for any medical expenses. Not all cocoa is intensely farmed like this; craft chocolate makers (LINK) purposefully source cacao farmed with sustainably, quality, and farmer livelihood in mind. But in some West African countries, the majority of households depend primarily upon income from cocoa production. So when that income is insufficient, issues such as child-aged & forced labor, and loss of education can arise.
As farmers age and these issues remain, the question of who will take over these farms continues. While it’s difficult to separate issues of sustainability and ethics from social issues, these are the human-centric issues arising from our global obsession with chocolate.
Intensely-farmed cacao requires lots of labor to upkeep trees and harvest the pods, and then remove the seeds and process them. When a farmer doesn’t have enough money to pay a worker, often the burden to help with harvest falls upon the other family members, including children. While helping out on the farm every once in awhile is not an issue, some families come to rely upon their children as a source of labor, taking them away from school. For families which aren’t able to pay school fees for all of their children, sometimes it becomes a choice of which kids will attend school, if any.
On the flip side, some families are so impoverished that they must send their children away to earn an income and meals. This has resulted in some children, and adults, being smuggled across the border to work on isolated cacao farms. Sometimes these laborers aren’t fed until they’ve met a daily quota, much less paid. Rising costs of maintaining a farm further exacerbates the issue, and reinforces the idea that the best way to get out of poverty is to get out of cocoa.
While farmers currently practicing intensive cacao cultivation will likely never leave the industry, their children are less likely than ever to want to take it over. Most cocoa farmers in West Africa are over the age of 50. With the instability of prices, and often compulsatory sale through the government, whole communities can become impoverished overnight if the world market price drops (and the government price with it).
One way experts have come up with to combat this issue is to increase and stabilize market prices so that farmers don’t have to rely upon loan sharks to cover that month’s expenses, or even stop taking care of their farm to seek other work. When farmers’ share of global revenue from cocoa increases, so does their quality of life and their ability to produce more and higher quality cacao.