By Leigh Vickery
[This article was originally posted on the website of the Tyler Paper, but the management of the paper
removed the article from the site. It is posted here so that readers can access it despite the paper's attempts to censor it. You can contact the Tyler Paper online here.]
EDITOR’S NOTE: Thank you to Roberto Romano, award-winning producer and director of “The Darkside of Chocolate,” for helping to clarify the issue and make suggestions to help the reader understand the seriousness of this problem.
A few years ago, I lost the diamond from my wedding ring. My husband, friends and I were at a Dave Matthews concert, and we searched everywhere among the crowd. It was an impossible task.
Around the same time that the insurance check arrived to replace the missing stone, I happened to watch the movie, “Blood Diamond.” In short, the film is a horrific view into the realities of how the 1990s rebels of Sierra Leone and Liberia used diamonds to finance their violent uprisings.
The rebels kidnapped women and children and enslaved them to mine for the precious stones. If the slaves disobeyed, they were beaten and had their hands cut off.
Much has been done since the movie’s release to bring awareness to the atrocities of the diamond market, such as the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, but as with drugs and weapons, the illegal diamond trade still flourishes. And once these diamonds are brought to market, their origin is almost impossible to trace.
In other words, the diamond in my ring might have been placed there by a child, chained to a life of slavery, poverty and illiteracy. I have chosen not to replace my diamond for now.
To be fair, I don’t wear much jewelry, so this isn’t a big sacrifice. Where it does hit closer to home is with my love of chocolate.
The truth about your Valentine’s candy is probably going to bring more guilt than its calorie count.
Hundreds of thousands of children work in the worst forms of child labor, and many have been sold into slavery to work on the cocoa farms of West Africa. And more than 70 percent of the world’s chocolate starts on these farms.
Just like the diamond industry, awareness of the problem is helping to bring change. A few cocoa cooperatives around the world are working hard to put “Fair Trade” practices in place. The hope is that the general public will be willing to pay more for their chocolate if they know the workers are treated and paid fairly.
Unfortunately, progress is slow. The chocolate giants – Hershey’s and Nestle – take baby steps when forced, but our economic system allows these companies to purchase their cocoa on international exchanges where it is impossible to know the cocoa’s origin.
“Fast Company” magazine reported that Hershey’s “has no policies in place to purchase cocoa that has been produced without the use of labor exploitation, and the company has consistently refused to provide public information about its cocoa sources…No information is available from Hershey about how the money it has invested in various programs in West Africa has actually impacted reductions in forced, trafficked, and child labor among the suppliers of its cocoa. Finally, Hershey’s efforts to further cut costs in its cocoa production has led to a reduction in good jobs in the United States."
The magazine is quoting from the Global Exchange Report, which goes on to say that a high percentage of Hershey workers are victims of human trafficking, regular abuse, and, in the case of children, are working without their parents or any legal guardians.
The bitter truth is this: The vast majority of the chocolate in our mouths begins in the hands of children and slaves working in terrible conditions. Ironically, Valentine’s Day does more to promote human trafficking than it has ever accomplished in advancing romance.
So what do we do? Well, the ultimate response would be to boycott all diamonds and chocolate originating in slave labor until we solve the crisis. The market thrives only in response to what we buy, not the other way around.
But don’t let me lose you with that radical suggestion. You can do something to help by supporting those companies trying to make a difference.
Look for the “Fair Trade” or “Slave Free” logo on your chocolate labels. Companies such as Green & Black’s, Newman’s Own, Scharffen Berger, Valrhona, Whole Foods Market Private Label and Dagoba are your best bets. They may cost a bit more, but these bars taste so much better than mass-produced chocolate anyway.
The world is a crazy place. Millions of dollars are spent each year to promote humane practices in our chicken and cow slaughterhouses. Food activists bend over backwards to make sure animals are treated with respect before we eat them.
But what about how we treat each other? I have to believe that if you and I were standing on a river bank in Sierra Leone, watching a young boy beaten until he can produce a diamond for his slave owner, we would never want to wear one again. If we visited the Ivory Coast and watched women work 18-hour days to harvest our cocoa beans, then perhaps our chocolate cake wouldn’t be quite as tempting.
We have removed ourselves so far from the origin of our food, clothes and luxuries that we assume if it’s on our shelves – if we can legally buy it – then it must be OK.
Now you know it is not.