The first domestic use of cocoa takes us back 5,500 years to the Mayo-Chinchipe-Marañón culture in the southern region of what is now Ecuador. Naturally, the trees found there are not that old, but their genetic lineage can be traced back to that time. The history of the domestic use of cocoa jumps unclearly from the high Amazon to Mesoamerica, to the Mayas and later the Aztecs. Both civilizations used it in an energizing drink, in medicine, as well as in rituals and ceremonies, attributing it with divine character and origin. This was later preserved in the scientific name of the tree, Theobroma cacao (Linnaeus, 1753), in which “theos” means god and “broma” means food. In the Nahuatl language, it was called “cacahuacuahuitl” and its fruit simply “cacahuatl,” which gave rise to the word “cacao.” On the other hand, “chocolate” comes from the Nahuatl term “xocoātl,” composed of “ātl,” which means water, and “xoco,” which means sour. The first encounter of the Spanish conquistadors with cacahuatl took place on the island of Guanaja during Christopher Columbus’ fourth voyage in 1502, although it was during the time of Hernán Cortés that cocoa and the tools to prepare chocolate were introduced in Spain. The exclusive cocoa beans, cultivated by the Mayas and Aztecs in the lands of nobles, high-ranking warriors, and merchants, were also used as a common currency and constitute one of the best examples of the most primitive means of payment. This practice prevailed throughout the colonial period and until the early 20th century in southeastern Mexico. Everything could be bought with cocoa: clothing, food, slaves, and even gold, a raw material they mastered perfectly and incorporated into everyday objects such as furniture or jewelry. This malleable and precious metal, regardless of its form or function, was plundered or exchanged for colorful trinkets to be reduced to bars or ingots. In 1535, the Spanish crown established the first mint in Ixachitlān, now known as America, with 90% of its production destined for export. However, cocoa beans continued to circulate. A hare cost 10 cocoa beans, a slave around 4,000 beans, and 200 beans were equivalent to 1 silver real, a metallic coin that depreciated in value until it reached 15 cocoa beans per unit in 1720.
With the “Leyes Nuevas” (New Laws) of 1542, the enslavement of indigenous people in “New Spain” was prohibited, designating them as subjects of the King. In the same year, the Crown minted two copper coins for minor transactions, which were unanimously rejected by the inhabitants despite threats of fines, flogging, and forced labor. These failed coins were withdrawn from circulation. By the late 16th century, the annual tribute payment in the Viceroyalty was 1,600 cocoa beans or 1 gold peso. An indigenous person for forced labor cost between 300 and 500 beans, depending on their gender, age, health, and skills, and with around 8 to 10 beans, one could access a session with a prostitute. There was also the counterfeiting of gold powder and cocoa beans as currency, so both methods were gradually replaced by metal coins.

Before the arrival of Europeans, gold was already used as a means of payment by the Chibcha peoples, with a system even more precise in dimensions than the Spanish system. Further south, the encounter between the Spanish Empire and the Incas was quite different. The Incas based their power on a strongly disciplined collective development, without poverty or slavery, with roads for administrative and military purposes, but not for trade. It was a persuasively expansive communism without the need for conquest or currency. This agrarian assertion was buried by the mining industry imposed by the Spanish Empire in its religious zeal to expatriate as much wealth in precious metals as possible.

In all these journeys, cocoa also crossed the ocean and, once in the Iberian Peninsula, the bitter “aphrodisiac” drink was flavored, sweetened, and quickly shared among European aristocrats. In 1569, Pope Pius V of the Catholic Church declared that the consumption of said beverage did not break the fasting rules. After Spain, cocoa continued its steady advance through France (1615) and England (1650), and so on, until it conquered Slumil K’ajxemk’op [the unconquered land]. The rapid expansion of cocoa consumption in Europe demanded increased production. African slaves were brought to America to work in cocoa and other crop plantations that would also end up in Europe. During those years, each founder of a village could use two to four indigenous people, whom they had to pay around 100 cocoa beans per day of work from sunrise to sunset.

The Bank of Sweden, the world’s first central bank, was founded in 1668, but it wasn’t until around 1690 that chocolate reached Scandinavia. Two years later, Louis XV attempted to regulate the wholesale and retail sales of chocolate, and in 1711, a regulation in Sweden stated: “Whoever uses tea, coffee, and chocolate at home must pay two silver dalers.” Spain maintained the monopoly on cocoa until 1728 when it ceded control of its trade to the Netherlands. Years later, the first machines for chocolate production were put into operation (France, 1756, and Barcelona, 1780). By the end of the 18th century, the now sweet chocolate reached North America, while in revolutionary France, they attempted to abolish slavery in their colonies.

Between 1811 and 1814, the insurgent general José María Morelos minted the first truly Mexican coin, completely independent of the Spanish Crown. His decree removed the symbols of the Spanish monarchy and added “an arrow with a sign at the bottom pointing to the wind where it belongs, which is from the south.” This was the first fiat currency, with the promise of payment once the revolution triumphed. The payment never happened, but Mexico achieved its independence in 1821.

In the following years, the Portuguese began to bring cocoa to the lands of their slaves, and in Amsterdam, a machine was invented to separate cocoa butter from cocoa powder (Van Houten, 1828), which facilitated the dissolution of the latter in hot water or milk, as the British had been consuming it since the previous century. In Switzerland, chocolate was first mixed with hazelnuts (Kohler, 1830), and in England, the first chocolate bar was put on sale (Fry & Son, 1847). Meanwhile, in France, soluble cocoa powder began to be commercialized, both for adults and children (Poulain, 1848). In Vevey, milk powder was created (Nestlé, 1867), marking the beginning of Swiss milk chocolate (Peter, 1875). Shortly thereafter, the first chocolate that melts in the mouth was produced (Lindt, 1879).

Despite financial crises, global cocoa consumption grew by 800% in the 1870s. At that time, cultivation began in British Gold Coast, and later, during the Scramble for Africa, French colonies also joined in the mass production of cocoa. Thus, it quickly transitioned from being a product consumed exclusively by the elite to becoming a mass-consumed product with benefits for the elite. During the “Roaring Twenties,” candy companies in the eastern United States began selling chocolate discs wrapped in gold foil for the Jewish tradition of gifting coins to children during the Festival of Lights. This was already done in Belgium and the Netherlands, though in honor of Saint Nicholas.

Year after year, these sweet images of money consolidated as symbols of Hanukkah and Christmas celebrations. During World War II, German saboteurs designed a chocolate bar that covered a steel bomb programmed to explode a few seconds after a piece was cut. Meanwhile, Nestlé’s subsidiary in Germany, Maggi, employed thousands of forced laborers and Jewish workers. In the mid-20th century, the genetic improvement of plants to increase cocoa production was recognized.

Since then, both cocoa stocks and consumption have steadily increased, as well as global warming, due to human actions rather than natural causes. However, articles periodically appear with headlines like “Chocolate is on the path to extinction in 40 years.” Although it might be the small cocoa producers who disappear first.

Cocoa is the eighth illicit financial flow in Africa, and farmers receive less than 70% of its international value. Additionally, cocoa prices have been extremely volatile, and in 2021, African farmers received 20% less than the cost. In April 2022, British television showed a producer who stated that his farm had generated around 30 bags of cocoa beans the previous year (approximately two tons) and he had received €2,800 for that, including “responsible” premiums from large chocolate corporations, at €1 per bag. From that amount, he allocated less than €1,000 to his employees and a large portion to pesticides, materials, and taxes. (The international price of a ton of cocoa according to ICCO in early April 2022 was €2,242). However, cocoa plantations are usually smaller than this case. Another farmer mentioned that he produces between six and eight bags per year and receives around €400, so he uses his young children to help with the work. On a typical plot occupied in Ivory Coast, assigned to a young adult as their only remuneration after years of slave labor, an average of two bags are produced per year.

Currently, over 90% of global cocoa production comes from farms of less than three hectares. In Ivory Coast, which is the world’s leading cocoa producer, it is estimated that there are more than 1.2 million cocoa farmers. On the other hand, three companies control 65% of the world’s cocoa processing capacity.

In April of this year, the family-owned company Mars initiated pilot programs of corporate responsibility to support a group of cocoa farmers and help them achieve a dignified and sustainable income by 2030, estimated to be €1 to €2.5 per day. However, in September, the World Bank defined the poverty line at €2.15 per day.

At the beginning of this century, it was reported that children in Mali were being sold for around €30 to work on cocoa farms. In response to this issue, scientific studies emerged regarding the alleged health benefits of chocolate consumption. The “Harkin-Engel Protocol” was also established, a public-private agreement aimed at completely eradicating the worst forms of child labor and child trafficking in the cocoa industry by 2005. However, after the deadline, it was revealed that children from Burkina Faso who were taken to Ivory Coast had a cost of around €230 (approximately the price of 2 bags of cocoa according to the international price).

In 2019, a child trafficker involved in forced labor in cocoa production was filmed, confirming that paying €300 was common, although he also mentioned that not all children had the same value. The following year, a study conducted by the NORC social research group at the University of Chicago revealed that approximately 1,560,000 children were working in cocoa production in the growing areas of Ivory Coast and Ghana. According to the report, 95% of these children were exposed to at least one hazardous form of child labor, such as land clearing, heavy lifting, use of agrochemicals, sharp tools, long hours of work, and night work.
Indeed, last year, eight children from Mali who had been enslaved on cocoa plantations in Ivory Coast and managed to escape filed a lawsuit in the United States against major chocolate companies, including Nestlé, Cargill, Barry Callebaut, Mars, Mondelēz, Hershey, and Olam Americas. The children accused them of contributing to and incentivizing slavery on cocoa farms. Although the judges did not deny the veracity of the facts, the case was dismissed because the crimes occurred outside the country.
These multinational corporations admitted that their supply chains involved child labor in the worst forms of child labor. Despite continuing to profit from these criminal practices, the companies “promised” to reduce their reliance on child labor by 70% by 2025.

antipodes café


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What is the $2.15 poverty line, and based on this new measure, how many people are living in extreme poverty in the world?

Source: Data Help Desk


(Last update: 2022.06.22)