If you're alone (or with other single friends) this Valentine's Day and are seeking the perfect downer for the occasion, look no further than The Dark Side of Chocolate. While millions of couples will express their love for each other with extravagantly wrapped boxes of candied cocoa of unknown origin, you can rest easy that you're not supporting what amounts to slave labor in regions of West Africa.
To be sure, for most people The Dark Side of Chocolate will be more personal and thus more disturbing than a documentary about the ugly underbelly of, say, the dried fruit industry. After all, chocolate is a globally traded commodity (or rather, cocoa is), a $50 billion/year worldwide business, and a veritable drug for women everywhere - and a few men, too, including me.
Concerned and curious about rumors of child labor on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast, intrepid Danish journalist Miki Mistrati set off with a hidden camera and a bag full of questions about the source of the precious cocoa used by the world's leading chocolate manufacturers (The Hershey Company, Mars, Cadbury, Nestlé, and others). What he would find, tragically, is that children as young as seven years old are clearly being trafficked from neighboring countries to work in cocoa plantations for little to no pay. If the lack of an actual war prevents your favorite confection from being considered "conflict" chocolate, you should still feel conflicted about eating it.
Mistrati's footage is astonishing, and it's horrifying to watch the process - to actually see these trembling kids being whisked across the border and put to work in the jungle. Worse, when Mistrati presents his questions to a government official in the Ivory Coast's department of labor, he is brusquely assured that no children are working in the fields, and that any documented problems have been addressed. (It doesn't appear Mistrati is allowed to show the government official any footage during the meeting, but he does later screen the film on a giant screen outside of Nestlé's headquarters.)
All of this speaks to a much greater dilemma in the world's relationship with chocolate, which is the degree to which the cocoa bean serves as a tentpole of the Ivory Coast's economy, accounting for a huge portion of its annual export earnings. The country is the world's largest exporter of the crop, and one can imagine the effect accusations and increased regulations could have on the country's already fragile economy (to say nothing of the current political strife). Take away the cocoa bean, and you may throw the baby out with the bathwater, eliminating child labor but eliminating a lot of legitimate adult labor along with it.
If you're wondering why the global community hasn't done something about labor in the cocoa industry in the same way they did with diamonds, well, they have: the Harkin-Engel protocol, introduced in 2001. Trouble is, the standards for child labor-free production that were meant to be in place in 2005 are still not in place and, as far as I understand it, there is currently no way to determine the "cleanliness" of your cocoa unless you purchase fair-trade certified chocolate (and even then it would be worth investigating the source).
Happy Valentine's Day!
The Dark Side of Chocolate is currently airing on television in Europe; stay tuned for a U.S. broadcast