While international markets enjoy cacao, indigenous populations continue to suffer under its weight. Photo compliments of Confectionery News.

Although the international trade of cacao has grown exponentially over centuries and brought great wealth and economic power to people and countries; there have been dire consequences that indigenous people and the production quality of the cacao have suffered. The cacao trade has become a world leader of raw commodities, and as the United Nations reports, the industry produces roughly 4.7 million tons per year which ranks number 17 in the global import market (chart below).

Yet, despite this incredible success, evidence shows that the more powerful have continued to exploit the more vulnerable.

Additional information and current trends and market data for the International Cacao Trade, can be seen here:

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(Chart by UN~FAOSTAT, demonstrating raw food tonnage by import category, for 2011.)

Rank Commodity Quantity (tonnes) Flag Value (1000 $) Flag Unit value ($/tonne)
1 Soybeans 90813977 3 51403325 1 566
2 Wheat 147205956 1 51184264 2 348
3 Food Prep Nes 13416474 13 49892030 3 3719
4 Palm oil 36589672 5 42034273 4 1149
5 Maize 108067148 2 36342489 5 336
6 Rubber Nat Dry 7179256 27 33765962 6 4703
7 Wine 10004329 20 33041355 7 3303
8 Coffee, green 6445688 34 28303554 8 4391
9 Bever. Dist.Alc 4074220 56 27945091 9 6859
10 Cake of Soybeans 63593084 4 27458049 10 432
11 Meat-CattleBoneless(Beef&Veal) 4931836 45 26246728 11 5322
12 Cigarettes 1003748 135 25381577 12 25287
13 Cheese of Whole Cow Milk 4764853 46 24670883 13 5178
14 Cotton lint 7856760 25 23177384 14 2950
15 Sugar Raw Centrifugal 33838303 6 22649899 15 669
16 Pastry 6958052 28 22542345 16 3240
17 Chocolate Prsnes 4717528 48 22429658 17 4755
18 Chicken meat 11391477 17 21792056 18 1913
19 Pork 5260397 43 18300081 19 3479
20 Sugar Refined 21921611 8 16694636 20 762

In his book, Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz claims that while the cacao trade expansion from indigenous cultures to one of a global network has provided not only increased access to foreign markets for cacao, it has also allowed for the rise in trade of other commodities such as sugar, wheat, and rum (43). Further, he says, that not only did it create new markets but it also provided for essential exchange of information and the sharing of new ideas across cultures. Additionally, this expansion allowed for new players to enter the game and to create a new revenue stream. As Maricel Presilla reports, in her book The New Taste of Chocolate, that in recent decades, with the help of the U.S. Agency for International Development, Vietnam’s government has worked to adapt the fields to grow cacao after the failure of coffee as a cash crop (120).

Cacao Growth in Vietnam, Photo by Vietnam News.
The expansion, which began in 2012, has increased the plant’s capacity by four times, from 60,000 tonnes per year to 240,000 tonnes.

However, along with massive cacao production for international markets, came trade-offs that weighed heavily on the success of cacao production.

Whereas the temperamental cacao loves to have its feet in wet soil and its roots shaded by debris-mostly for the benefits of the pollinating midge population-the corporate plantations are streamlined and debris free. These practices, while aesthetically appealing, have contributed to crop failure which are today at record levels, asserts chocolate researcher, Michael Coe, in his book The True History of Chocolate (21). Additionally, the drive to capitalize on massive production and international networks has promoted an increased focus on quantity and a decreased focus on quality. Where formerly there was an overall production balance between high-quality Criollo and lower quality Forestero, today’s cacao farms produce mostly low quality beans. In Trinidad, for example, 95% of what is produced is low-bulk beans, and only roughly 5% are of the highest quality “Arriba” bean (Presilla 123).

An opened cacao pod shows damage done by insects; a common trend in today's cacao production.
An opened cacao pod shows diseased exterior and seeds; a common trend in today’s cacao production.

The following is an example of current cacao diseases that exist largely on corporate plantations, compliments of The American Phytopathological Society:

Diseases Pathogen Region Reduced Production
(tons x 1000) ($ million)*
Black Pod Phytophthora spp. Africa/Brazil/ Asia 450 423
Witches’ Broom Crinipellis perniciosa Latin America 250 235
Frosty Pod Rot Moniliophthora roreri Latin America 30 47
Swollen Shoot CSSV Africa 50 28
Vascular- streak dieback Oncobasidium theobromae Asia 30 28

Quality aside, the indigenous populations have also suffered under massive change. Forced to make changes within their own cultures that were not easy or welcome, millions rebelled and either died from abhorrent living conditions or were killed by the enslavers (Martin 4). Not only were these populations forced into changing small farming methods, and to plant foreign crops; but they were also forced into laboring for low wages or worse yet, under slavery. No longer were they able to provide their own families with food, but they were forced to pay for imported goods from the sponsoring country (Coe 13)… and exploitation of people, land, and cultures, became the norm as cross-cultural hybridization took place (Presilla 118-123).

Moreover, the international trade routes were built around the three-way trade system, carrying what Mintz calls the “false commodity” (43) of human slaves. This entrenchment of cacao in slavery has left a bitter note in history and even today invokes strong passion as information surfaces about modern day slavery practice. Carol Off, in her book “Bitter Chocolate” discusses how the Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) experiences high levels of corruption and child enslavement, with “farmers paying groups of smugglers to deliver the children to their groves” (121). Michael Coe agrees, saying as recent as the year 2000, “several million African children, many of whom have been abducted from neighboring countries work under terrible conditions” (264).

Thus, despite the improvements in trade and the massive wealth obtained, evidence shows that there are hefty consequences paid by many and that the human rights violations and other exploitation in the name of cacao, continues.

Video on current child-slave-labor crimes, compliments of BBC World News.

Works Cited

American Phytopathological Society: Chart of Cacao Diseases. 2001. Web. 12 Mar 2015.

“Cocoa Farms Still Using Child Labour.” BBC World News. 10 Nov 2011. Web.12 Mar 2015.

Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe. The True History of Chocolate. Third Edition. Thames & Hudson Ltd: London, 2013. Print. Confectionery News. Ferrero Makes Fair Trade Cacao Commitment after Rule Change. Image. 10 mar 2014. Web.

Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations. 2011. 11 Mar 2015.

International Cocoa Org. Market Review. Jan 2015. Website. PDF.

Martin, Carla D. “Slavery, Abolition, and Forced Labor.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 04 Mar. 2015.Class Lecture.

Martin, Carla D. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.” Harvard Extension School: Cambridge, MA. 28. Jan. 2015. Class Lecture.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: The New Press, 2006. Print.

Presilla, Maricel E. The New Taste of Chocolate Revised. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 2009. Print.

Thuey, Tuang. “Cargill Expanding Vietnam Feed, Cocoa.” 10 May 2014. Web. 10 Mar 2015.