Zack Gross
Zack Gross

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Chocolate a Factor in Political Crisis

Brandon Sun “Small World” Column, Sunday,  January 23 / 11

Zack Gross

Back on November 28th, Ivory Coast, a West African country with a history of human rights abuses, corruption and conflict, and the West’s major supplier of cocoa, held its national elections. 

Laurent Gbagbo (pronounced Ba-bo), the incumbent President who has used revenues from the cocoa trade to fund his government, his army, as well as his own interests, lost the elections to Alassane Ouattara, verified by the international observers and election workers who monitored the process. 

However, Gbagbo refuses to cede power to his rival and conflict grows (hundreds have died and tens of thousands have become refugees) as he attempts to hang onto power.  People close to this deteriorating situation are calling for a boycott of Ivorian cocoa and chocolate products as a way to force him out. 

Not only is there a public campaign being promoted by activists concerned about democracy and peace in Ivory Coast, but there is also a more official effort being undertaken by the European Economic Union, with the EU just a week ago freezing Ivorian cocoa, petroleum, media, banking and port assets to choke off the defiant president’s cash flow.

While the threat of armed invention has been made by the Organization of African Unity, an easier way to defeat Gbagbo’s forces is thought to be him defaulting on his soldiers’ wages.  Already, Ivory Coast has missed recent international debt payment deadlines.  The author of the Global Witness Report “Hot Chocolate
,” the results of researching the cocoa revenue impact on the Ivory Coast civil war of 2002-03, says that Gbagbo used over $58 million to finance his fight against rebels in that conflict, while the rebels earned $30 million by smuggling cocoa out of the country through their own territory. 

Gbagbo was implicated in the 2004 kidnapping and death of Canadian journalist Guy-Andre Kieffer who was researching the connection between corruption and conflict in the Ivorian cocoa industry.

Ivory Coast has attracted a global public outcry over the past decade in relation to its cocoa industry’s poor human rights record, specifically the use of child labour. 

As the world’s largest supplier of cocoa (almost 40%), Ivorian producers and their allies have abducted and enslaved school-aged children from their own and neighbouring countries to work in horrible conditions harvesting and processing cocoa. 

As fair trade production has become more popular among consumers, Cadbury’s (as one example) began to work with the United Nations to offer better working conditions in the industry in Ghana, the world’s second-largest producer, but the Ivory Coast has continues to victimize, according to the US State Department, more than 100,000 children. 

This is despite the fact that Ivory Coast has ratified numerous international conventions on child labour – but it does not enforce them.

A number of factors have recently contributed to the rise in demand and cost of agricultural products, including coffee and chocolate.  These factors include bad weather (climate change has been a factor), disease (crops have been hard hit around the world) and the increasing wealth of people in populous countries such as China. 

In the case of chocolate, the unstable situation in Ivory Coast has contributed to a further 12% increase in its market price. 

One effect of this instability and uncertainty is that Ivorian farmers have been less willing to plant new cocoa bushes as they take three years to become productive.  Thus, the cocoa crop is in decline and world prices have doubled in the past five years.

Prices will go up, says a Chicago-based commodities researcher, or chocolate bars will get smaller while prices stay the same.  To cut financial corners, companies are even reducing the amount of real cocoa in their bars!  Companies are also sourcing cocoa from other countries, such as Ecuador, Venezuela, Madagascar and the Caribbean. 

Some ethical chocolate companies see this trend as economic karma, that is Ivory Coast is being “paid back” for its many years as a bad actor.
Companies such as Nestle, M & M / Mars and Hershey’s are being urged to cut off Gbagbo and his Ivorian regime.  Although petroleum is a larger factor in his financial power than it was a decade ago, it is still felt that cutting out his cocoa revenue will help push him from power.  One focus of this boycott campaign is the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland coming up at the end of this month, which will be co-chaired by Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke.
Manitobans have an opportunity to weigh in on this issue by urging the chocolate industry to abandon their support of arbitrary rule, human rights violations and murder in Ivory Coast. 

A stable, peaceful and democratic West Africa will save lives in that region and reward your sweet tooth and conscience with fairly traded and moderately priced chocolate.

Zack Gross works for the 
Manitoba Council for International Co-operation (MCIC), a coalition of more than 40 international development organizations.

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