FLAVOR PROFILE: Earthen; classic cocoa, coconut, tobacco-spice, leather &, recently, toasted bread
CHARACTERISTICS: mostly bulk-grade Amazon; reliable, simple, & bold; used mainly as a foundation for blends
From the continent whose shores launched millions onto slave ships, life in the world’s #1 cocoa producer – Ivory Coast – continues to be a bitterest-sweet saga.
Slammed by charges of child labor, possibly true with respect to coffee & cotton, though somewhat discredited when it comes to cacáo, which requires inordinate skills & experience lest a whole crop – & a farm family’s entire livelihood – can go quickly to ruins, a risk unlikely to be placed in the hands of kids indentured from neighboring countries. And cacáo is a family business here, with more than 800,000 growers in the country, involving some 4 million people in all. Farming in many parts of Africa is a family affair. Naturally children will be involved just as they were when the American West was being settled & schools let out during summer for one reason: to let students help on the farm. In Ivory Coast a farm-hand typically picks the pod, an adult / parent usually cuts it open with a machete, & children often handle the ‘kids chore’ – scoop out the pulp ‘n seeds. Yes, violations occur. That the current situation with respect to trafficking child slaves now shifts the very definitionof ‘child labor’ to how much schooling children receive, & whether they also handle “hazardous tools” (machetes, chemical sprays), &/or climb tall trees to prune pods, provides evidence of improvements too.
Nonetheless, U. Roberto Romano’s film The Dark Side of Chocolate (2010) documents the prevailing if declining business of child trafficking from neighboring Burkina Faso & Mali, a sobering fact backed up by Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck-Letmathe’s statement that despite remediation campaigns sponsored by the industry & certifying agencies child labor will probably always be part of the economic equation.
If charges of child labor abuse aren’t enough, more sordid tales abound. Journalist Guy André Kieffer disappeared April 16, 2004, suspected of being murdered because he knew too much about the politics of cocoa in Coté d’Ivoire. Or was he innocently caught up in the crossfire of a civil war pitting rebels in the North against the central government in Abidjan – the Manhattan of the tropics?
Talk may be cheap with Skype & VOIP but a life in the Ivory Coast may be worth even less. The lawyer investigating Kieffer’s disappearance for the EU was nearly beaten to death by armed commandos of, he says, the presidential guard.
February 2009: Mabo Gohou had his house burn down & was run-over by a Mercedes in Gagnoa while investigating, on behalf of the national government, charges of corruption among the cocoa barons ruling the industry. In just 2 years, a conservative estimate of US$750 million was siphoned off, some of it to pay for the civil war. That’s on top of a govt levy – about 40% (cut almost in half as of 2012) – to further frustrate growers.
Gohou died in a hospital 6 weeks later before any chance of fleeing the country for safety.
Greed knows no law but its own.
Many point to the scandalous transaction surrounding the Nestlé Fulton factory not as the root of evil (the traditional reserve of money), just another offshoot of it. Originally built in 1902, Nestlé moved its operations to Brazil & the Fulton factory was acquired in 2003 for the token sum of $100. A probable front for money laundering, once renovated it could process 150,000+ tons, vaulting it into a major player in the world’s largest market.
At the center of this tale lies Fonds de Régulation et de Contrôle Café-Cacao – a cocoa / coffee marketing consortium (some prefer the term ‘racket’) created by the government of Ivory Coast in a convoluted web of growers, banks, insurance companies, investors, & the government itself of course (among them the wife of the former prime minister). Soon the intrigue went global with millions of dollars exchanged & hi-profile politicians on 3 continents – Africa, Europe, & North America – ensnared, including Senator Charles Schumer & Hillary Clinton.
True to the spirit of the times, as the decade came to a close so too the factory… remaining idle.
Jean-Claude Péclet covered the story for the Swiss daily Le Temps & interviewed a local cocoa exporter who despaired: “That’s Africa! The government sponsored my studies & paid for infrastructure.”
Tales all at odds with a people in a country who appear easy-going & friendly.
However cynical anyone may be, change is now afield. Consumers of the 21st Century are having their say in shaping outcomes, whether it be GMO, traceability, nutrition, labor practices or the environment. Profit-sharing & decision-making can become more equitable as a result.
For these reasons, as well as tax purposes, the Big 3 are building manufacturing plants in Ivory Coast & Ghana. For example, Nestle’s pledge to plant 12 million cacáo trees this decade or Callebaut’s factory in San Pedro, Coté d’Ivoire. Making chocolate from bean-to-bar in the country of origin eliminates shipping raw material – cocoa beans – to Europe or America for refining. It generates value-add for the host country, represents a consolidation of North-South expertise & rising vertical integration of the entire production chain.
In many respects, ‘Big Chocolate’ was forced into these arrangements due to eroding quality & quantity caused by depressed morale among overtaxed growers too burdened to replenish their groves, resulting in deplorable land-use, plus diseased & degraded trees (Black Pod; CSSV). Their response is to step in with hi-tech super seeds (including one clone locally-dubbed ‘The Mercedes’ for its ability to yield up to 3 tons/hectare – a 6-fold increase!) & CSR programs (corporate social responsibility).
The process of Boom ‘n Bust (above) & the results of Deforestation (below); graph by Yann Clough / photo by Jean-Claude Péclet
Whether their sustainability campaigns just green-wash the underlying realities (papering over with slogans & cosmetic changes) or if they truly mean business (as opposed to just cutthroat business-as-usual) depends on the perspective of whom one asks. As often the case, truth probably lies somewhere in between the extremes. That they operate in treacherous territory means they have to play hardball while simultaneously delivering supplemental income in the form of medical coverage, education tuitions, & low-interest loans for housing. Direct payments are also up.
For more comic-tragedy on Ivory Coast cacáo, see Chapter 6 in Mort Rosenblum’s Bittersweet Saga. Covering the second half of the 20th century, Mort cut out just as the Kieffer story started to go down, sensing that authorities there underappreciated investigative journalism.
Still, his book details how the party that spearheaded the country’s independence in 1960 – the Parti Democratique de Côte d’Ivoire – had its roots in the Syndicat Africain Agricole, led by a cocoa planter named Félix Houphouët-Boigny, who became the new nation’s first president. Houphouët-Boigny originally hailed from Baoule chieftains, the dominant ethnic group in the country’s south. He & his party favored a policy of extensive rather than intensive cacáo production. Instead of striving for massive yields per acre, Ivory Coast elected to clear more forestland for cultivation to achieve massive yields over ever more acres. This also opened the country’s doors to growers from Mali & Burkina by offering them land (albeit usually without title) as long as they tended to it, so that today over half of the Bromans, or cacáo growers, in the country are non-Ivorians.
Once revered as the ‘Sage of Africa’, possibly for annual shakedowns of his Parisian patrons in the Élysee known as Françafrique, he along with successor M. Bedie perfected catastrophic corruption on a supremely lavish scale to make Halliburton appear white-glove clean by comparison.
With apologies to Jeffrey Sachs at the Earth Institute, The Gates Foundation, The Clinton Initiative et. al., corruption equates with statecraft here. Transporting cocoa from upcountry down to the port, for instance, means navigating somewhere near 25 quasi-military ‘checkpoints’ – each demanding a payoff.
Checkpoints: roadblocks, controls, speed bumps & tolls along the way to… bribery, the undeclared price of transport (source — West Africa Trade Hub)
A testament to all this arose in building the world’s largest church – Our Lady of Peace – in the middle of the bush amidst the impoverished surrounds of Yamoussoukro (population at the time of construction: maybe 100,000). More spacious than even the Vatican’s own St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (of which it’s a close-enough replica), Our Lady of Peace came replete with nearly 23,000 square feet of stained glass windows, including a scene the president commissioned himself that depicts Félix as one of the 3 Magi at Jesus’ birth!
Whatever their shortcomings, graft has its grafts & plenty of them: the Ivory Coast is the current world #1 producer, of mostly bulk-grade Amazon. Similar to the situation in Ghana, beans from Nigeria, Cameroon, & Gabon readily get tossed into the mix labeled ‘Ivory Coast’. Unlike Ghana, Ivorians dismantled their government regulatory agency overseeing the industry, a Stabilization Fund called Caistab. In doing so they effectively lost control of their cocoa sector.
It’s questionable if they can ever get it back… though the country wants to reverse tack. In 2012 President Ouattara established a new regulator – Cocoa & Coffee Council (CCC) – & initiated a futures market to auction portions of Ivory Coast’s next harvest. Based on the auctions, CCC will set a guaranteed price for growers as well as the export price of their cocoa.
If you build it, the flock will kingdom come… a flea market for the world’s largest church: Basilica of Our Lady of Peace overshadows Yamoussoukro, the birthplace of its benefactor & former Ivorian president Félix Houphouët-Boigny; consecrated at its completion in September 1990 by the ever-diplomatic Pope John-Paul II with the following:
I know the difficulties currently affecting you. Economic crisis hampers development for which so many efforts have been made; it causes much anxiety & suffering. The Church, without direct competence in this field, cannot however remain indifferent… I wish all the people of this country to actively pursue their wealth, not only those produced by the soil, but also the wealth of irreplaceable individuals with precious potential – the development of their intelligence & personal qualities needed to thrive. With all my heart, I wish the Ivory Coast forward in harmony & respect in a society where nobody is helpless. This is addressed specifically to the elites: your country relies on you to exercise power in a spirit of service for the whole community.