Saturday, February 16, 2008

Chocolate Wars

My initiation into the world of protest movements took place in 1947, when I was 10 years old. For a middle-class kid in postwar Canada, strikes and demonstrations were someone else's news. But when the candy manufacturers jacked up the price of a chocolate bar from five cents to eight cents, I joined with other kids by picking up a placard and going on strike.

I remember it vividly – a couple of dozen kids waving signs in front of the confectionery stores in the shopping district (there were no malls) just a few blocks from our school. DOWN WITH EIGHT-CENT CHOCOLATE BARS! BRING BACK THE NICKEL BAR!

At the time, I thought this was a local battle – but in fact it was a strike by all the children of Canada. It began in Ladysmith, BC, and rapidly spread across the country. Mobs of kids marched down Bloor Street in Toronto. Ottawa kids demonstrated on Parliament Hill. Adults were sympathetic; the end of wartime wage and price controls had resulted in a tide of rising prices, but nobody had expressed the general resentment until the kids tackled the candy companies.

The boycott worked, too. Chocolate bar sales plunged by 80%.

And then the tide changed. Ludicrous as it seems, right-wing outlets like the Toronto Telegram denounced the movement as a communist-inspired threat to national security. The Mounties muttered darkly that the boycott had been cooked up in Moscow. Reds under the bed. Principals, parents and priests fell in line. The strike soon faded away.

I think I remember that prices did go down, but only briefly. After things cooled off, the companies quietly raised the price again, and this time it stuck.

What astonishes me, as I revisit the 1947 boycott in Carol Off's fine book, Bitter Chocolate, is the way the protest prefigures so many themes in the world I would grow up to live in. Inflation, for instance, which had been unknown during the depression and the war. And the attempt by all the elites – the police, the press, the educators, the politicians, the churches, you name it – to discredit protest by ignoring the grievances and blaming Reds, furriners and “outside agitators.” the system used the same technique against labour, against the peace movement, against women's organizations, against students.

But the most powerful weapon of all was time. A government, a university or a wealthy company can always outwait its opponents.

My childhood experience of unfairness apparently typifies the chocolate trade throughout history. Bitter Chocolate (Random House, $34.95) is sub-titled “Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet.” In it, Carol Off makes the case that chocolate is the blood diamond of the candy-box, rooted in conquest, corruption, slavery, child labour and hypocrisy. Her story begins with Cortez , who conquered Montezuma's Aztecs, learned the value of the cocoa bean, and promptly enslaved the Aztecs. Cocoa plantations in Central America and the Caribbean were subsequently manned by slaves transported from Africa.

The story seemed different in the 19th century, when British chocolate manufacturing was dominated by earnest Quakers. Cadbury, Fry and Rowntree were benevolent capitalists who, Off says, “managed what was near at hand with impeccable regard for human dignity.” They built model communities around their model factories, and often supported progressive measures like a minimum wage and family allowances.

But their cocoa came from a couple of Portuguese-owned islands in the Gulf of Guinea, which were, a century ago, the world's leading source of cocoa. And the cocoa was produced by a vicious system of forced labour – as it is to this day, notably in the backwoods of Cote d'Ivoire.

Cote d'Ivoire was once a prosperous place, an “African miracle” based on cocoa. Then cocoa prices dived, and the economy was savaged by the “assistance” of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. With newly-impoverished Ivorian farmers desperate for labour, smugglers began trucking children from nearby Mali and Burkina Faso. By 2000, the US state department estimated that 15,000 Malian children were working in the cocoa plantations. “Many are under 12 years of age, sold into indentured servitude for $140 and work 12-hour days for $135 to $189 per year.”

The only hopeful note is the emergence of new “fair trade” companies like Green & Blacks, who established a mutually-respectful cocoa business with the Mayans of Belize, and marketed a premium chocolate bar called Maya Gold. So far, so good – but in 2005, Cadbury Schweppes bought control of Green & Blacks. What next? Will the fair trade movement transform the multinational? Or will the chocolate barons eviscerate the standards of fair trade?

That's the industry we were taking on as school children in 1947. No wonder we lost. But what a good foe to have chosen!

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