Tristes Tropiques

All the world’s cocoa is produced in the tropics, between the 20th north and 20th south parallels, whereas almost all the world’s chocolate is made and consumed in Europe and America. If there were 100 cocoa producers in the world, 70 would be African, 20 Asian and 10 Latin American. 90 would cultivate less than 5 hectares and 10 would own large plantations. 75 would never have tasted a bar of chocolate in their lives.

The hands that pick the pods from the trees and break them in two with a machete to remove the beans belong to the humblest laborers on earth. Immigrants from Burkina Faso who work in the Ivory Coast and risk persecution every day. Indonesians who have fled from overcrowded Java to look for a job in the plantations of the island of Sulawesi. Brazilian Indios who cling on to their meager work when almost all their colleagues have been fired, struggling to survive in the suburbs of the big cities. Sometimes even children, bought for a pittance in Mali and kept alive on a diet of corn and bananas.

Small producers (the vast majority of producers in Africa are small) are slightly better off—but not much. The owners of a few hectares of land have no control over what happens after the first two processing phases: the fermentation of the beans in banana leaves and drying in the sun. At the end of the season, they hand their harvest over to a local middleman.

The middleman is someone who has a bit of cash aside and owns a van to take the sacks to the ports: in the Ivory Coast he is known as a traitant, in Latin America as a coyote. He is almost invariably a rogue. A lot depends on him; he fixes the prices and keeps the producers on a string. If need be, he grants them advance payments in the form of small loans.

The port is the realm of the exporters, who keep in contact with the big processing companies. When the sacks arrive, the exporter opens them, checks the merchandise, lets it dry for a day or two, puts it back in the sacks and loads it onto ships headed for Europe or the US.

The price is set by the London Stock Exchange according to political and economic logics that the producers and their countries sometimes find hard to grasp. It varies according to the origin of the cocoa. For example, if the beans come from Indonesia, a percentage is deducted from the standard price, while a bonus is envisaged for beans from Ecuador—and so on.

The big processing companies (mainly European and American) control market trends and when the moment is right, they buy. Often they don’t actually buy cocoa as such; they buy ‘futures’, or stock. When they claim the price in beans, the Stock Exchange pays them the difference (if the price has gone up), or vice versa (if it has dropped).

Some companies turn the beans into semi-processed goods, which they sell to confectionery companies and artisans. Most of these are situated in the Netherlands, which import over 20 percent of the world’s cocoa beans, re-exporting almost all of them in the form of liqueurs, butter and powder. Other countries buy both the beans and semi-processed products and turn them into chocolate and other cocoa-based products.

80 percent of the chocolate market is controlled by six multinationals. Three—Mars, Philip Morris (owners of Kraft, Jacobs, Suchard, Côte d’Or, Milka) and Hershey—are American and the other three—Nestlé (Switzerland), Cadbury-Schweppes (UK) and Ferrero (Italy)—are European.

The cocoa producer is just the first weak link in this long chain. The price may go up or down—it makes no difference to the producer.

When there used to be national monopolies in the main producer countries to control production quantities and price fluctuations (Ghana, for example, had the powerful Cocoa Board, now significantly downscaled, whereas the Ivory Coast had the Caisse de Stabilisation, another agency dismantled under pressure from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank), it wasn’t all roses for the producers, some of whom are better off now in a free market regime.

Not that better off means well off. The fact is that cocoa is still worth very little. Although the war in the Ivory Coast (the leading world producer) has caused a sudden price increase over recent months, source profit is still very low, largely due to over-production.

In the mid-seventies, when cocoa prices hit an all-time high, new countries invested in the product. The first was Malaysia, followed by Indonesia, where thousands of hectares of virgin forests were chopped down to make room for intensive cultivation. But cocoa trees only become productive after seven years and it is foolhardy to make forecasts on this kind of time-scale.

When the new plantations become productive, cocoa suddenly swamps the market in huge quantities: while in 1970 production was about 1,500,000 tons, by 1985 it had shot up to 2 million and in 2000 it had topped 3 million. Hence a drastic fall in prices: in 2000 cocoa cost barely £540 per ton, less than a fifth the price 25 years before.

The average quality is falling too: the best varieties (Criollo and Trinitero) are used less and less, while the market is being invaded by hybrids grown in Asia, selected for resistance to the sun and to environmental conditions, such as the humid shade of tropical forests, that are ‘unnatural’ for cocoa plants. On the other hand, western countries are working to maintain stability, issuing regulations that are anything but sympathetic.

One was the 2000 EC directive which allowed cocoa butter to be replaced in chocolate by other vegetable fats, thus further reducing the dependence of western industry on producer nations. The latter’s only hope now is an agreement to reduce the quantities produced, but relations are strained and new Asian producers are critical of the production quota policies that are being fought for by the ICCO (International Cocoa Organization).

The only chance left for producers (often not even protected by their own governments) is to organize themselves and focus on quality, increasing their own bargaining power and avoiding middlemen— thus shortening the fiendishly long chain which is squandering the value of their product today.

Positive examples do exist. Ghana’s Kuapa Kokoo, a large commercial organization bringing together over 30,000 small producers and selling most of their cocoa through Fair Trade channels, is living proof that other options are available.

First published in the magazine SlowArk 38, April 2003

Serena Milano is general secretary of the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity

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