Orla Ryan explores the complex and oftentimes misunderstood cocoa industry in her book “Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying For Cocoa in West Africa”. Her main focuses are Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, two major contributors (and competitors) in the cocoa bean industry. She explores how although the two countries have basically the same cash crop: cocoa beans, each country is incredibly different from the other, in its conditions for its farmers, the tension between farmers and government, and the way each government handles issues like taxation on beans, and issues with the World Bank.
Cote D’Ivoire was at one time referred to as the “miracle state” of Africa, Ryan writes. Under the excellent leadership of Felix Houphouet Boigny well into the 90s, their cocoa bean industry flourished, farmers were paid properly, and immigrants were encouraged to come from Burkina Faso to help grow the economy. For a long time, people prospered. Orla Ryan tells of a Cote D’Ivoire that was, in its way, a reincarnation of France, with fresh lobster dishes, heavy sauces, and French-styled buildings. In many ways, Cote D’Ivoire was a country to look to for hope of success in a post-colonial time. However, when Boigny passed, a number of different leaders came in, and the world cocoa prices began to drop, leaving many cocoa farmers, previously well-paid, to make much less. Questions of Ivorite (what Ryan refers to as the essence of being an Ivorian) came to light, and began to accuse immigrants who had been in the country for generations of not being true citizens of Cote D’Ivoire.
Ghana, alternately, has progressed a great deal in the last decade, as cocoa bean payments to farmers continue to rise, in part thanks to the World Bank encouraging that farmers begin to be paid their fare share. Although there is still not enough being paid to these workers, there is improvement, and forseeable improvement.
Additionally, Ryan explores the validity of Fair Trade, and how much it actually helps the farmers. Although many have said theyhave profitted a great deal from Fair Trade, and so have their villages thanks to well projects and the like, some research states that Fair Trade does not pay that much more than the average price, depending on what the world price is at the time, and that many farmers do not sell exclusively to Fair Trade buyers. The reasoning is, that most farmers will sell to whoever has ready cash, and Fair Trade indutries are not always able to provide cash immediately, which is not the best for the farmer. Ryan argues that it is not necessarily about buying or not buying Fair Trade, or any other form of chocolate, but about doing one’s research and not allowing oneself to be drawn in by marketing.
What is excellent about this book, is defined in Orla Ryan’s style. It does not read as if it is a textbook, spouting out facts about Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, and quoting statistics with no explanation as to what those statistics really mean. She actively writes as though she is writing a novel. She is telling the cocoa industry’s story, as though it is a person, and because of this style she writes in, the reader is able to emerse themselves in the world she’s written, and is able to truly absorb the information that is given to them.
Even surrounding the topic of child labour, a heated topic for most people, Ryan remains neutral in her arguments of both sides. It is easy for a reported to get caught up in a story that involves children. In this case, the situation is less black and white, and more of a gray area. Child labour in Ghana is defined differently, in that the child is allowed to work, so long as it not interfere with school. Family work is different from child labour, because it refers to family farms where everyone pitches in. This is how a family earns its livelihood and is common even on ranches in the USA and Canada. In this case, so long as the child has the opportunity to go to school, it is allowed. However, this is not always the case. Some children do spend their childhood on the farm, and not in school, but the percentages of children who work on cocoa farms who also go to school are actually incredibly high. There is a large participation rate, and so the argument of “child labour” affecting children’s studies can actually be incredibly skewed on the subject. Ryan gives a good case as to why the topic is gray and brings a new perspective to what may or may not be unfair child labour.
Ryan also does not encourage blind research. She does not hide from information that might deflect what she is arguing, but prefers to show all sides of the story. As she is a journalist, it is hard to imagine an unbiased piece: oftentimes a journalist will tell the story from an angle with an intended message, but Orla Ryan simply wishes the reader to be well-informed all around. She will write one chapter detailing the positive outcomes of Fair Trade, and the next present a number of reasons why Fair Trade does not work. Although her opinion shines through her writing at times, in most cases, her intended message is undetectable. She simply wants the reader to have the facts, and draw their own conclusions. It is both refreshing, and possibly intimidating to some.
In addition to talking about the cocoa industry, Ryan also talks to real people, as a journalist is apt to do. She sets them up as characters that the reader gets to know, grows to care about, and suddenly their story is a story that the reader holds close to their heart. Guy Andre and Thomas are two particular stories that stand out: both are victims of the cocoa industry. Thomas is the unknown victim of immigrant discrimination: losing his father to an act of violence against him, just because someone questioned his “Ivorite.” Thomas and his family have been in Cote D’Ivoire for generations, but when it comes to paperwork, that does not matter. Guy Andre, is the opposite: a household name, a warning to those who go around asking questions about cocoa money. The man disappeared and only traces of him here and there were found. No one knows what happened to him, just that he asked too many questions. These are stories that question the intentions of those in charge of the cocoa industry: those that say they are doing what is best for the country, and yet people are harmed, and many farmers are not paid properly.
What it comes down to, or at least what can be derived from Orla Ryan’s writing, is that the problem of poor working conditions for cocoa farmers in Western Africa cannot be improved until the global price for chocolate goes up, and not from change in supply, but when people are willing to pay more for chocolate all together so that cocoa farmers may be paid more. Chocolate companies would need to make smaller profit margins. For millions of people, cocoa is their livelihood, and they are not paid enough for their hard work. Chocolate should not cost as little as it does in the Western world, not by a long shot. It’s not a question of child labour vs adult labour, or Fair Trade or not, but a question of our willingness to spend more so that more people can live an easier life. As Orla Ryan says in her epilogue, the best thing we can do is do our research and make informed choices with our purchases, rather than follow the marketing trail that leads us to Fair Trade or ethical brands, because what seems ethical at first, may be doing harm in its own way.