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Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet [Hardcover]

Carol Off
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Oct. 10 2006
Award-winning author and broadcaster Carol Off reveals the fascinating – and often horrifying – stories behind our desire for all things chocolate.

Whether it’s part of a Hallowe’en haul, the contents of a heart-shaped box or just a candy bar stashed in a desk drawer, chocolate is synonymous with pleasures both simple and indulgent. But behind the sweet image is a long history of exploitation. In the eighteenth century the European aristocracy went wild for the Aztec delicacy. In later years, colonial territories were ravaged and slaves imported in droves as native populations died out under the strain of feeding the world’s appetite for chocolate.

Carol Off traces the origins of the cocoa craze and follows chocolate’s evolution under such overseers as Hershey, Cadbury and Mars. In Côte d’Ivoire, the West African nation that produces nearly half of the world’s cocoa beans, she follows a dark and dangerous seam of greed. Against a backdrop of civil war and corruption, desperately poor farmers engage in appalling practices such as the indentured servitude of young boys – children who don’t even know what chocolate tastes like.

Off shows that, with the complicity of Western governments and corporations, unethical practices continue to thrive. Bitter Chocolate is a social history, a passionate investigative account and an eye-opening exposé of the workings of a multi-billion dollar industry that has institutionalized misery as it served our pleasures.

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Praise for The Ghosts of Medak Pocket, winner of the Dafoe Book Prize:

“A first-class account . . . her prose is lively and her tone impassioned.”
The Globe and Mail

Praise for The Lion, The Fox and the Eagle:

“This is an explosive look at what really happened in the failed peacekeeping missions in Sarajevo and Rwanda.”
Ottawa Citizen

About the Author

Carol Off has witnessed and reported on many of the world’s conflicts, from the fall of Yugoslavia to the US-led “war on terror.” She has won numerous awards for her CBC television documentaries in Africa, Asia and Europe. She lives in Toronto.

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Customer Reviews

4.5 out of 5 stars
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Belongs next to your copy of Fast Food Nation Nov. 13 2006
What is most appealing about this book is that you will recommend it to friends and co-workers because it is short enough, and written in a style that is neither impersonal nor condescending, but has factual insights and brief-to-the-point historical backgrounds next to straightforward gut-wrenching analyses that will haunt you.

This is an extremely commendable work, with many astounding and horrifying facts juxtaposed (and rightly so) with the popular canon of names and facts we are all tenuously familiar with - from the Central American colonialist conquest to Milton Hershey's paternalism to the current fair trade discussion.

You can't help but transform your habits in a small way after the few hours you'll have invested learning of the injustices around a luxury so ubiquitous in our culture that has "an inconvenient truth" (i.e. labour practices) associated with its production. Carol Off is an eloquent story teller, but has a raw journalism "embedded" in this work that is, appropriately enough, written to engage the average reader who does cares more about about a better world beyond so-called dithering - illustrated quite profoundly in the case of the Cadbury family! How we can live with nonchalance and ignoring blatant exploitation for our cravings is really up to us, isn't it?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Unjust Desserts! May 11 2007
By Ian Gordon Malcomson HALL OF FAME TOP 10 REVIEWER
As an investigative report par excellence, Carol Off provides her reader with a very disturbing insight into the commercial world of big chocolate.

What she finds is an industry that both exploits it workers - mainly children - betrays its producers, and de-stabilizes its host third world nations in the name of making big profits. The story is a tragic replay of what other multi-nationals have done in diamonds, sugar, coffee, and rubber. The book spends a considerable time in showing where this practice began back in the l8th century, with the opening free trade and the development of the British Empire. The latter portion of her efforts zeros in on the great political, social and economic upheveal the Big Chocolate concerns have caused in the Ivory Coast with the hiring of young children to harvest the cocoa crop. I highly recommend this book for its effective focus and level-headed reportage. Lots of useful and easily confirmable evidence to back up her claims that the Third World is paying dearly for the West's demand for cheap chocolate.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "When people eat chocolate . . . " April 23 2007
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME TOP 500 REVIEWER
Hardly larger than New Mexico, the Côte d'Ivoire doesn't seem an appropriate site for international economic intrigue or the focus of intense labour reform efforts. A glance at a map of Africa suggests it should be a tourist haven. A magnificent coastline, running east-west for over 500 km, faces the Gulf of Guinea, an arm of the Atlantic helping form the Bulge of Africa. Some of that shoreline has protected harbours, and most of the Ivory Coast's neighbours, such as Mali, Guinea and Ghana enjoy a large measure of political stability. The Côte d'Ivoire also enjoys an economic privilege - it produces nearly half of the world's cacao beans. Those beans are the foundation for Valentine's Day confections, cocoa and chocolate Easter bunnies. As Carol Off has shown in this captivating study, thereby hangs a tale.

Cocoa beans grow best in special tropical conditions - high heat, elevated humidity, a lush overstory of trees and supportive soil. Originally from Central America where the aristocrats of the Olmec empire restricted consumption of the rich, dark compound of kakawa to themselves, chocolate is now universally enjoyed. Columbus missed the chance to introduce chocolate to Europe, but when it did arrive, it was taken up enthusiastically. Like coffee, which came from the opposite direction, cocoa became the basis for a wave of new gathering places - coffee houses - which served coffee, hot chocolate and tea. The demand for chocolate rose rapidly, driving producers to expand while cutting costs. In agriculture, the chief method of cost reduction is to slash labour costs. The major effort needed in producing cacao, which grows on tree trunks, is the harvesting - cutting, separating the seeds from pulp and spreading them to dry. Even a child can do it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Read before you buy your next chocolate! Feb. 7 2007
We all think that fair trade, organic chocolate is better than the ordinary stuff but until you read this book, you have no idea how much blood and horror is mixed into the regular chocolate bar on the shelf. Carol Off, a Canadian journalist who has covered conflicts from Yugoslavia to Afganistan, now looks that the Ivory Coast, source of half of the world's chocolate, and a formerly proud and successful African model that has degenerated into war and child slavery. She starts with the history of chocolate, from Cortez and the Spanish who learn about it from the Aztecs and enslave them to produce it. Soon cocoa is growing in a belt within 20 kilometres of the equator around the world, a labour-intensive crop harvested and dried with slave labour. When in 1828 Coenraad Van Houten figured out how to press the cocoa butter out to make Dutch Cocoa powder, the drink as we know it became popular. Then a series of open minded and progressive men like Fry, Cadbury and Rowntree in the UK and Hershey in America built empires at home with model cities and factories, while ignoring the obvious slavery abroad. Some of the most honourable men in either country were earning their livings off cocoa and sugar, grown by slaves.

Now chocolate manufacturers can say they don't know where their supply comes from; our good corporate friends Archer Daniels Midlands and Cargill act as the middlemen, buying all over the world, playing one supplier off against the other, to keep the prices low. But in 1965, the Ivory Coast dictator Felix-Houphouet-Boigne started using cocoa to turn his country into one of the success stories in Africa, building a gleaming modern capital city with wide highways and skyscrapers.
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