Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bitter chocolate

Every now and then, a story comes along that makes you change your habits – or at least your mindset – as a consumer.

Before I saw Blood Diamond last year, I had no idea just how brutal the diamond trade in Africa could be. I don’t buy a lot of diamonds, but it made me look at my modest engagement ring and wonder whether or not its purchase had come from a country where men, women and children were brutally exploited in its mining.

Should I buy another diamond at some point, it’s a question I’ll certainly be asking.

Not long after, I read about a potential shortage of chocolate in some parts of the world due to unrest on the Ivory Coast. The story made me curious (and, I confess, a tad panicked), so I started researching the cocoa bean industry to understand how trouble in Africa could affect the products on my supermarket shelves in Australia.

The result was the appalling discovery of the conditions under which a sizeable percentage of the world’s cocoa beans are farmed.

How had I never heard about this before?

Stories of kidnapping, slavery and torture left me horrified, and prompted several hours of further research – and a few emails – to ascertain which chocolate brands I could eat without feeling guilty.

Chocolate may come from France, Italy, Switzerland and Belgium (and, of course, Tasmania), but the cocoa it is made from is grown and farmed far away from those glamorous locations – in far harsher conditions.

Former war correspondent Carol Off has attempted to expose the horrors of the cocoa bean industry in a new book, Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet.

She writes about the seedier side to our favourite decadent indulgence, from corporate espionage to the rise of child slavery in cocoa production

She travelled to the Ivory Coast and interviewed children who had no idea what the cocoa crop was used for – let alone tasted chocolate – risking her own safety to fully understand the violence and brutality of the industry in that part of the world.

Hers is an important book, but very few people will read it.

If its contents were the subject of a fictional film – a la Blood Diamond – it might actually have wider impact. As we’ve talked about many times on this blog, narrative has a way of getting under the skin, making people see a situation through different eyes, that straight reporting can rarely achieve.

Chocolat, Like Water For Chocolate … these are stories that make us salivate. But what about a story that made us think twice about what chocolate we buy? What if there was a story that made us think about kidnapping and child slavery every time we ate it?

I wonder if such a film could ever be made. And if it was, would we watch it?

Which leads me to a question: have you seen a film or read a novel that changed you as a consumer?

(For those interested, Kerrie Murphy of The Australian has an interesting article about Carol Off and Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. You can read it here.)


Bec C said...

I, too, got the guilts about my limited range of jewellery after watching 'Blood Diamond', but I was impressed by the moviemakers offering us a feeling of empowerment at the end of the film ("make sure you check out where your jewellery has come from") rather than a feeling of helplessness ("what a terrible business, but what can I possibly do about it?"). By the way, Leo does some great stuff doesn't he?!

'Blood Diamond' is a bit different to other films that I can think of which 'have a conscience'.

There's your 'An Inconvenient Truth' and 'Fahrenheit 9/11' varieties which are obviously straight docos, probably preaching to the converted, however they do provide a call to action of sorts for the reader/ viewer.

Closer to 'Blood Diamond''s style might be your 'Erin Brocovich' or 'A Civil Action' both of which highlighted the little guys fighting for compensation for illnesses caused by toxic waste from big corporations. However, both of these stories simply told a story from a historical perspective - there was no right to be wronged by the time these stories were told.

I'd like to see the 'Bitter Chocolate' story told in a narrative rather than a doco style, I think its a powerful way to get a message across - of course with a brief call to arms for the consumer at the end of the story.

Bec said...

Hi Paula,

Well this post holds the record for the longest period of time I have needed to think about my comment. And in the end, I have answered your question (I think) with an entire blog post, so I won't clog up your comments section by repeating it here. Thanks for another brilliant post. XXX Bec