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The challenging lives of the world’s cocoa growers

More chocolate is sold in the U.S. than any other country in the world, the majority coming from Ivory Coast and Ghana. A new book, "Cocoa," examines the politics that go into its production with an analysis of power and inequality in the cocoa industry. Megan Thompson speaks with author Dr. Kristy Leissle, based in Accra, Ghana, who spent more than a decade researching chocolate.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Today is Easter and as is the case for many holidays Americans often celebrate with chocolate. American demand is high. More chocolate is sold here than in any other country in the world and there are millions of cocoa growers providing the supply. The majority of whom come from just two countries in West Africa Ivory Coast and Ghana. A new book cocoa looks at the difficult lives of those growers and their role in the cocoa industry. It was written by Kristy Leissle who on the faculty at the University of Washington and is currently based in Accra Ghana. She recently spoke with NewsHour weekends Megan Thompson

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Who are these cocoa beans growers. What conditions do they live in?

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    Yeah they’re 90 95 percent or smallholder farmers which means they own very little small plots of land and they grow a tiny fraction. Each of them. Of the total crop which is over four million metric tons. So each one of those cocoa farmers grows just a little bit of that. They live in really challenging conditions. The infrastructure that we enjoy here is not present in the areas where cocoa farmers live. And so things like paved roads and running water and electricity. Usually they don’t enjoy those things so it’s a very challenging life.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    What kind of income are these growers earning?

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    It’s hard to give an average because there’s such a range and how much farmers can grow some of the work that I’ve done has found between 2 and 3 dollars a day if you average it over time. It’s also a little bit misleading to say two or three dollars a day because each cocoa farming household has a number of people who live in that and so eat so that income has to really be shared amongst them.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    So the value of the cocoa beans that these growers produce is estimated to be around 8 billion dollars a year. But the value of the chocolate that those beans are used to make is estimated to be around 100 billion dollars a year. Can you just talk about that market?

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    As I said there’s five million cocoa growers in the world each one of them capturing such a tiny share of value of the crops that they grow. That means that they just don’t have a lot of power they have very little influence in this industry even collectively it’s been really hard for farmers to come together and organize and exert themselves as a political force. They’re far too spread out in remote rural regions it’s it’s hard for them to come together in any way exert themselves meaningfully.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    You write in the book about this emotional relationship that we have with chocolate and how that might kind of obscure the story behind it.

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    I do think we have such an emotional relationship with chocolates and that was something that we really invented and it was the marketing and advertising of the early industrial chocolate bar and candies that gave us that relationship with chocolate we associate it now with romance and love and holidays and celebrations. Chocolate is an everyday luxury here in North America and Europe and increasingly in Asia. We can buy a chocolate bar with very little impact on our disposable income. It’s very affordable luxury.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    We talk about buying chocolate. I know when I walk into a store I sometimes see chocolate that’s labeled fair trade or direct trade. I know some of the big chocolate companies have programs that they tout supporting farmers and you know helping with sustainability. I mean how much do we know about how much of an impact all these programs have? And what would you advise a consumer to do?

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    When you’re using a label like Fairtrade. There’s a third party not the cocoa farmer not a chocolate maker who says these are the rules to play by. This is what’s just and you can verify that what’s happening is is what we say is happening when a chocolate company adopts its own internal certification program. It’s a lot harder to verify what they’re doing. And so we’ve seen that shift in the industry. What I do say to people is we are at a stage where we know so little about where chocolate comes from. So learn as much as you can inform yourself. Ask the companies that you buy chocolate from. Ask the retailers to tell you where that cocoa came from.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    All right Kristy Leissle thank you so much for being here.

  • KRISTY LEISSLE:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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