For some time I've felt lucky to be autistic in part because it means that my compassion does not depend on my ability to see the face of a suffering person, know his identity, or feel any sort of connection with him. Just knowing someone is suffering causes me to want to fix whatever's causing it. The earthquakes in Haiti and Japan, the Africa tsunami, the civil war in Libya, and many smaller disasters, always made me want to help. But I can't; they're too far away and I have very little money to send.
Turns out I may not be as lucky as I thought I was. Like many human beings, I find it easier to ignore human suffering when it's not obvious, when it's on the other side of a wall I can't see through. I may not need to see someone's face, but if I'm not reminded that they are in pain, I may simply forget about them.
From the title of this post, you already know I'm talking about chocolate. Agricultural workers growing chocolate are poorly paid or unpaid, exposed to dangerous chemicals without protective gear, working as much as a hundred hours a week. Many are essentially slaves, having been lured with the promise of working and sending money home to their families, only to be held against their will, unable to return home. Many are beaten.
Oh, and did I mention?... Often times, these workers aren't adults. They're kids. A majority of these kids are younger than fourteen. They get very little education, and they're doing jobs that are meant for adults--carrying too much weight, using dangerous tools like machetes.
I've known about this for most of a year, I think; maybe a little less. And for most of that year, I've been eating chocolate.
Maybe it's because I haven't been constantly reminded of it, the way I would be if a natural disaster were in the news. Or maybe it's just because I don't have the willpower to resist a chocolate craving. Either way, I'm ashamed of myself. It needs to change. So... I won't be buying any more chocolate.
I know it won't do much. I'm under no illusion that my refusal to buy a Hershey's bar at the checkout is going to do much for a ten-year-old hauling cocoa beans in Africa. But maybe that is exactly why child slavery in chocolate production still exists--because everybody knows that getting rid of their little part in the problem isn't going to change much. The farmers know that their employees (or "employees", more correctly) will just end up working for someone else; anyway, the farmers weren't the ones who kidnapped anyone. Families send children to work because they can't eat otherwise. The companies buying chocolate reason that they aren't the ones employing child labor; and anyway, if they don't buy the inexpensive cocoa on the market, someone else will. And here in the US, most people don't even know it's going on. The lawmakers have been trying to change things for more than a decade, but each deadline keeps getting pushed back and nothing gets done.
There's "fair trade" chocolate out there; it's more expensive, and less likely to have been produced using child labor or slaves. It's hard to find, though, and expensive. All the major companies are still buying cocoa from the same places, because if they don't, all the other major companies will be able to undersell them. Other problematic foodstuffs aren't so complicated. You can find fair trade coffee pretty easily, and organic bananas are usually produced more ethically (and anyway can be replaced with apples or pears when you want fruit); but I haven't been able to find, or afford, ethically produced chocolate.
So why am I even doing this? I guess it's because if something like this is going on, I don't want to be involved in it. If I can't change it, at least I don't have to be part of the problem.
You are probably thinking to yourself, "Boy, she's self-righteous, going on publicly about how she's not going to be involved in slavery." Yeah. I'm thinking that to myself, too. Maybe it's true. But the fact is, I like chocolate. I like it a lot. And I think that if I make a commitment publicly, I'll be less likely to break it. I'll have all of you looking over my shoulder--perhaps literally, considering that some of the people who read my blog are people I know in everyday life. Plus, maybe some of you didn't know about the problem. If you didn't, inform yourself, and listen to your conscience. I can't tell you what to do about it; like I said, I've been eating chocolate, too. It's an awfully tempting substance.
Maybe, sooner or later, things will change and chocolate will be something grown by adult workers, free to leave, working in safety, and fairly paid. When that happens, chocolate prices may go up, but it will be all the sweeter because we'll be able to eat it without wondering whether someone suffered to produce it.