The Vanishing Chocolate Trees

I have been swapping emails with an Australian friend about the chocolate trade, and in particular the Fair Trade movement, the ever rising prices of chocolate (she’s a chocoholic, not only she eats the stuff by the “ton”, she imports it for her small but dainty chocolate shop)…and as she fears for next year’s Easter supply she asked me to help her digging out the causes and we found not one but two horror stories: as you know, chocolate is made from the fermented & roasted seeds of the cacao tree, and of late, a virus that has been around for the last twenty five years or so and aptly called Cacao Swollen Shoot Virus (CSSV) is now threatening to slash production by at least a third (West Africa grows 80% of the world’s cacao or cocoa – depending where you’re from)


I covered much of West Africa and my friend did some research into the Brazilian forest, since cacao trees are native of the Amazon forest. Amazingly another virus called witches’ broom is doing the same job in Brazil and in most Caribbean islands so this is not great news since demand for chocolate products has mushroomed to greater heights.

In recent years the CSSV has become an increasingly serious problem for the cacao growers in Ivory Coast. According to a local article I read:

The virus originated in native African trees, in which it is endemic, and spread by common bugs thereby unavoidable. The only defense until now has been to destroy millions of infected cacao trees to create a disease firewall.

Fighting this virus is slow and tedious. Apparently some folks at Florida’s branch of USDA are busy mapping genes for resistance to the dreaded CSSV, and as the lead man in the lab says,

“it will be a lot easier in a few years when we’ve sequenced the cacao genome.”

Whilst sequencing the cacao genome is good news, it does nothing for the dark side of the chocolate industry: rampant price fixing among industry leaders such as Nestle, Mars, Cadbury and Hershey and child labor in the West of Africa which goes on unabated and out of sight from most Western consumers. Although some lawyers will be happy about the Sweet Ruling in Chocolate Price-Fixing Case, others will point out to unfinished business:

Facing accusations of price fixing, leading chocolate manufacturers in the United States have persuaded a Pennsylvania federal judge to certify an immediate appeal of his decision not to dismiss 87 consolidated antitrust suits. Lawyers will be closely watching the interlocutory appeal because it promises to give the 3rd Circuit its first opportunity to define the scope and effect of the U.S. Supreme Court’s seminal 2007 decision on price-fixing cases.

By far the most disturbing aspect of cacao production is the continuing exploitation of children from Ivory Coast and nearby States. I have read countless stories and this one here goes straight to the point:

Slave traders are trafficking boys ranging from the age of 12 to 16 from their home countries and are selling them to cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire. They work on small farms across the country, harvesting the cocoa beans day and night, under inhumane conditions. Most of the boys come from neighboring Mali, where agents hang around bus stations looking for children that are alone or are begging for food. They lure the kids to travel to Cote d’Ivoire with them, and then the traffickers sell the children to farmers in need of cheap labor.

Another, albeit slightly dated but telling, from the African Union website:

The truth behind chocolate is not-so-sweet. The Ivory Coast is the world’s largest cocoa producer, providing 43% of the world’s cocoa. And yet, in 2001 the U.S. State Department reported child slavery on many cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. A 2002 report from the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture about cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast and other African countries estimated there were 284,000 children working on cocoa farms in hazardous conditions. U.S. chocolate manufacturers have claimed they are not responsible for the conditions on cocoa plantations since they don’t own them.

Since we know well that some clothing CEOs (and advertisers) have been publicly criticized for selling clothing lines manufactured by sweatshop workers, then why not apply the same standard to chocolate buyers and manufacturers? If you want to read more about the Ivory Coast and its internal conflict with cocoa farmers, go to the Fair Trade site here.


It’s not a pretty story overall. Though Fair Trade only manages to capture 1% of world sales of chocolate, try to purchase your chocolate needs through their point of sales, it’s a worthy cause.

This entry was posted in Environmental Issue, Food. Bookmark the permalink.

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