I saw this video this morning, and it really bugged me.
What I saw was a bunch of farmers pulling the leg of an easily fooled and somewhat patronizing Dutch reporter. They’re cocoa farmers, but they had no idea what cocoa was used for? I didn’t buy it.
Good thing I didn’t: someone named ChuraChura posted a dismissal.
I find this video pretty distasteful (and that’s aside from the link between cacao plantations in Cote d’Ivoire and child slavery).
I work in southwestern Cote d’Ivoire, just on the border of Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. The men I employ are largely cocoa farmers, when they’re not in the forest taking complex observational data on primate behavior and ecology.
Most of the people in this region are farmers with 5-10 acres in cacao or rubber production, and a much smaller subsistence plot with manioc, cassava, rice, pineapple, avocado, and oranges. Cacao is a labor-intensive crop. Once a year, the pods get harvested from the trees. They’re then cut open and the cacao bean is pulled out of the membrane and left on tarps in the sun to dry (everything smells like vinegar as the beans ferment), before being bagged up in 50L sacks, and then brought to central cacao-grower organizations. If you’re in a slightly more developed part of the country or part of a wealthy organization, you can get your cacao loaded onto trucks to bring them to a central location. Otherwise, we see men with these big sacks on bicycles pushing them from the village to their closest big town. Where I work, guys are generally walking 15-20 km. Once you get your cocoa beans to the organization, you’re at the mercy of the buyers. They generally set a price per kilo, and sometimes will set a quota for the amount they’re buying from particular regions depending on supply and demand.
Cacao is an attractive crop because demand is fairly steady, and the farms have been productive for a really long time. The problem is that you only harvest once a year, and then you have to rely on that lump sum of cash to get you through a whole year. This is particularly hard because mobile banking hasn’t really penetrated the market, and what (few) banks there are in rural southwestern Cote d’Ivoire aren’t really set up to cater to small-scale cash crop farmers. Some people are relying on the long-term prospects of rubber, which is currently getting better prices/kilo and can be harvested year-round – this makes it a lot easier to pay for things like school fees, uniforms, books, and supplies that need to paid for year-round. The problem is that rubber plantations take a while to come into production (5-7 years), so first of all you’re cutting down your producing cacao trees, and then you’re twiddling your fingers for 6 years while you’re not earning any money, hoping that the price of rubber won’t crash when all the new trees start producing, and that there’s still a market in the future.
The region is still politically unstable, and conflicts over land rights are a major part of that. A lot of the men I work with either fled themselves, or sent their families, to refugee camps in Liberia during the recent crisis. During that time, people from northern Cote d’Ivoire moved south and took residence in these abandoned farms – so even now, two years after La Crise officially ended, people still in refugee camps in Liberia are sneaking across the border and killing people they suspect took over their land. In addition, the effects of climate change are making the rains less predictable. The rainy season normally goes August-October (more or less); we didn’t get rain in 2013 until almost the end of November, which had serious consequences both for people’s cash crops and people’s subsistence crops. Food prices are rising, commodity prices are falling, and the situation is looking grim. The forested buffer zone around the national park I work in has now been entirely converted to fallow fields, cacao, coffee, and rubber plantations.
And, the men I work with know what chocolate is. When they can afford to buy it, their kids eat a knock-off version of nutella called Chocomax (it is pretty gross). These are smart, sophisticated adult men (and women, though fewer women own their own land… they mostly just do a lot of the labor on their husbands’ and fathers’ farms). Even if they didn’t know what chocolate was, they’re plugged into their local economies, they have a sense of larger global economic forces, and they know what’s going on (we listen to BBC world service: francais every night in the forest on Ferdinand’s satellite radio. They’d ask me cutting and incisive questions about stupid American politics, like who the hell is that Sarah Palin person anyway?).
But look, this is the way an extractive (exploitative) cash-crop economy works. It’s not cute or endearing that these men who are working incredibly hard have never, or rarely, had the opportunity to sample the end-product of their labor. It’s not touching that you have to go to the big city to find chocolate, and that only a little of it is locally produced (Milka is very popular in Abidjan; Ivorian brands less so), It wouldn’t be touching if you showed a cell-phone to a coltan miner in DRC and said "Look at this amazing machine your backbreaking labor in dangerous conditions enabled!" or a diamond miner in Sierra Leone with your sparkly pretty engagement ring and said, totally amazed, "But why don’t you have one?" Consumers in the developed world should be smarter than that. The producers in the developing world – the folks enabling our lifestyles – certainly are.
Now that’s actually interesting. It doesn’t fit into the racist narrative of the poor black subsistence farmers, though.
I also found this complementary video, in which the reporters went back home and showed the cocoa nut to European citizens. This ignorance I can believe, because I would have been baffled, too.
Who’s smarter? Who thinks they’re smarter?