Chocolate's Dark History: An Exploration of Cocoa Plantations

By Abby Devlin       

Chocolate is a treat, a dessert, a craving, or a valentine’s gift. The act of consuming chocolate seems innocent and brings joy to the consumer. However, the history of the labor practices within the chocolate industry is dark, like the beans it is grown from. Chocolate began its cultivation in Latin American, more specifically Mesoamerica with ties to the Aztec Empire (Moss). The Spanish then encountered chocolate when they colonized Mesoamerica. They exported it to Spain, where it was eventually popularized and spread throughout Europe. In the nineteenth century, wars in central and south America disrupted the chain of cocoa production in Latin America, creating reason to experiment producing the crop in other regions of the world, which proved to be successful in West Africa. Additionally, with the independence of Latin American countries coming as a result of the wars, slavery was abolished, further shifting the production of cocoa to West Africa, where slavery was still legal (Moss). Despite developments in human rights and the implementation of laws that abolished slavery in West Africa, laborers who work in chocolate plantations still experience exploitation, such as modern slavery and child labor. 

This exhibit will follow a chronological approach in exploring the abuses of the chocolate industry from the early 1900’s to the current time period through the analysis of primary sources, such as newspapers, documentaries, images, and annual reports. The first page of the exhibit will focus on the early 1900’s. This was one of the first times that awareness about the slavery utilized in the chocolate plantations in West Africa were brought to the attention of the public and choclolate companies through the Joseph Burtt report. The second page in the exhibit will focus on the Harkin Engel Protocol which was signed in 2001 by African governments, the United States government, and big chocolate companies to eradicate child labor and slavery in the industry by 2005. Finally, the last two pages of the exhibit will focus on cocoa plantations in a modern context and the contrast of different companies’ efforts to eradicate the abuses in the industry. Through the examination of the response to slavery and child labor in the chocolate industry overtime this will help to illuminate the lack of progress and accountability of the big chocolate companies. Also, this exhibit aims to bring awareness to the injustice in West Africa, bringing conscious to chocolate consumers.

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