When Chocolate Turned Crimson: The Story of Conflict and Cacao

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Representational Image| International Cocoa Initiative

Consider a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk. The joy of opening the violet-coloured wrapper while wondering about the state of the chocolate bar inside is known to all of us. Chocolate was discovered 4,000 years ago, and since then it has become an almost indispensable part of our lives.

Have you ever wondered about the chocolate, beyond its taste? Where is it sourced from? Who grows it? Who profits from selling the products? What is your consumptions’ implication on human rights, poverty and peace? Though these questions might seem trivial, such observations are not mere opinions. Reports on the industry’s exploitation of child labour and slavery have been making rounds in the news. However, the issue is much deeper. Did you ever think that your chocolate consumption could have financed, fuelled and sustained civil wars, and taken lives of thousands?

Cacao and Civil wars in Cote d’Ivoire

The most important ingredient that goes into the production of chocolate is cacao, the raw beans from the pods that grow on the cacao tree. The demand for chocolate has been growing exponentially from the last two centuries and is unmatched with the levels of production. Growing cacao has produced enormous economic benefits, as only a handful of countries with high temperature and humidity are able to grow it. And unfortunately, these economic benefits have not transformed into stability and peace for the people of these countries.Cote d’Ivoire is one of the highest producers of Cacao in the world, followed by Ghana and Cameroon. Though a variety of factors, including diamonds, have led to the two civil wars in this country, Cacao has an unrivalled role.

Pic Credit: The Wall Street Journal

When the Europeans fell in love with chocolate, they introduced the plant in parts of equatorial Africa and Southeast Asia. Cote d’Ivoire gained independence from France in 1960 and became a model-country for those in Sub-Saharan Africa. For about 33 years since its independence, the country was led by President Felix Houphouet-Boigny. With huge revenues from Cacao, he successfully managed social tensions in the country. He also encouraged migration from neighbouring countries to expand Cacao cultivation into the new areas of virgin forests.  However, his death in 1993 created a political vacuum. In the quest to occupy the void and obtain fertile land, leaders ignited the already deep religious and ethnic divisions that led to marking individuals as ‘outsiders’ and ‘insiders’. This led to a growing resentment against the ‘migrants’ who cultivated Cacao. Following changed to the land tenure laws and eligibility criteria for contesting for the post of President, various factions of the military emerged and began a series of attacks. Though a ceasefire agreement was signed in 2003 and UN peacekeeping forces deployed in 2004, violence did not end until 2017.

Though Cacao did not directly lead to creation of the conflict, experts are of the opinion that decreasing agricultural revenues could have been a background factor driving the conflict. During the civil wars, Cacao was an important source of revenue for both the government and rebel groups. Even in the post-war scenario, lack of transparent regulation mechanisms continues to help the exploitation of Cacao revenues for illegal arms trade.Following the release of a report titled “Hot Chocolate: How Cacao fuelled the conflict in Cote d’Ivoire” in 2007, the world became aware about the connection between Cacao trade and conflict. Since the end of civil wars, considerable progress has been made in terms of regulation of Cacao revenues and taxation system.

Conflict Resources and Climate Change

Cacao is a conflict resource, as it plays a crucial role in the conflict cycle. If one takes a closer look at natural resources, it seems like all of them affect conflict in multiple ways. Oil revenues finance ISIS’s war in Iraq; diamonds and timber fuelled the conflict in Liberia; charcoal shales fund Al-Shabab in Somalia and; illegal gold mining finances criminal groups in DRC and Columbia.

Conflict resources are those natural resources whose systematic exploitation and trade contribute to violations of human rights or international law. There are a number of factors that determine when a natural resource transforms into a conflict resource. First, the potential rewards should be enormous, such as in the case of revenues from oil. Second, there should be a possibility to exploit these resources with minimal technology and capital. Besides, these resources should be scattered, and not concentrated in one part of the country. Countries have discovered various mechanisms to address conflict resources such as securing sites of extraction, certification procedures, awareness campaigns and prosecution. In some cases, these resources were also used as entry points for dialogue and cooperation.

However, climate change is making conflict resources more vulnerable to being the subjects of contention. In the case of Cote d’Ivoire, cacao cultivation is becoming unviable due to exposure to risks associated with global climate change. Increased risk of droughts, deforestation and rising temperatures in Western African region are contributing to making West Africa’s cacao belt unsuitable for cultivation. This makes the population more prone to a civil war, as competition for scarce resources is on the rise. It will also have considerable effects on the global cacao supply chain, transnational migration and geopolitical stability. Therefore, it is important for countries to make suitable adaptation and mitigation plans.

Eating Chocolate with Responsibility

We cannot give up on chocolate. But we can leave behind its bloody side by buying chocolate ethically. As consumers purchasing chocolate, the best we can do is to make sure that the raw material is conflict-free, child labour-free and slavery-free ethical chocolate. There are a number of brands that have ethical cacao sources. Some of them include Rain Republic, Parliament Chocolate, Rapunzel Pure Organics, Samaritan Xocolata and Tobago Estate Chocolate. Or even better, pressurize your favourite chocolate brand to go through fair trade checks and certifications!

The story of chocolate is one of utter loss of morality and violent conflict. Will your conscience let you enjoy chocolate without looking at its history?

Sravya V. is a student of Conflict Transformation and Peace Building at Aung San Suu Kyi Centre for Peace, University of Delhi. She tweets at Sravya__Vemuri.

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