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Trade and tariff systems prevent cocoa processing in West Africa

Unjust system keeps farmers trapped near poverty level

by Joshua Heikkila, Mission Connections | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Dried cocoa seeds being prepared for packaging and export from Ghana. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”  – Revelation 22:1-2

ACCRA, Ghana — At a recent worship service, we read from the end of the book of Revelation. It described the beautiful vision of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven to Earth, and God coming to dwell among the people and the world God created. Listening to it read, I was struck again by the image of the tree of life on the banks of the river, producing new fruit for each of the 12 months of the year.

The image of strong and healthy trees bearing good fruit appears again and again in Scripture. Psalm 1 comes to mind, where the faithful are compared to trees planted by streams of water, yielding fruit in season, with leaves that do not wither. When the Bible speaks of fruit-producing trees, I can’t help but think of life in Ghana, my home as a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) mission co-worker.

In the backyard of my house in Accra, there are plantain, papaya and mango trees, each giving fruit at their particular times of the year. I’m excited as the dry season ends — the beginning of spring in the U.S. — when our avocados ripen and become ready to eat!

If you’ve ever read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel “The Poisonwood Bible,” you may recall her wonderful description of Americans in Africa encountering fruit trees for the very first time. The book is the story of a conservative missionary family in Congo in the 1960s, told through the lens of the family’s children. If you haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it!

“The fruits,” daughter Leah explains, “mango, guava, avocado — these we had barely glimpsed before, in the big Kroger store in Atlanta, yet now trees reach right down and deliver such exotic prizes straight into our hands!”

“Mangoes, guavas, pineapples and avocados,” according to daughter Adah, “came and went in mysterious seasons (not unlike the Lord’s ways) but at least did grow in our yard, free of charge. Bananas were so abundant around the village people stole them off each other’s trees in broad daylight.”

In addition to these trees, there is another fruit tree in West Africa which has had a huge impact on the people and economy for almost 150 years. It’s the cocoa tree, which in some parts of the world is known as cacao. The fruit of the cocoa tree is processed to make chocolate, and almost two-thirds of the world’s production takes place in the countries of West Africa.

A cocoa tree with the pods growing from the trunk. The beans, which are fermented, dried and ground into cocoa powder, are the seeds inside these pods. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

If you’ve never seen a cocoa tree before, it can be an unusual sight at first. The fruit, rather than hanging from the branches of the tree, grows as a pod off the trunk. The seed of this fruit (sometimes called a bean) is fermented, dried and then ground into powder, which becomes the primary ingredient of chocolate.

The fruit of the cocoa tree is not eaten for sustenance. Instead, it’s a hugely important cash crop in countries like Ghana, Togo and Nigeria. On family farms across the forest belt of West Africa, families grow cocoa (in addition to crops for personal consumption), which is then sold for extra income. It’s not unusual for children to help on these family farms after school and on weekends.

Major industries in Ghana include drilling for oil, mining for gold and growing cocoa. Each brings in roughly the same amount of money to the country. (One local company, in fact, refers to cocoa as “brown gold.”) While we might not hear much about the economics of cocoa, it has a profound impact on the region. The market price of cocoa sometimes affects whether the government can provide education, health care and necessary infrastructure for the well-being of the people.

Most of the cocoa exported from Ghana is in the form of the unground beans or powder. While prices always fluctuate, cocoa powder is currently selling for about a dollar a pound. The U.S. and Europe charge little or no tariff to import beans or powder. But as soon as the cocoa is processed a little more, these same countries impose a tariff of up to 30% on the cocoa that Ghanaian cocoa distributors import into Europe and the U.S.

Dried cocoa beans are packaged into 140-pound bags, which West African farmers sell for about $100 per bag. These beans will then be exported to processors in the U.S. and Europe for grinding into cocoa powder to make chocolate. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

In the competitive market for chocolate products, companies try to avoid paying this tariff. They import unprocessed cocoa, which is then made into chocolate domestically. Even companies certified as fair trade, while they are able to transfer more income to farmers, are trapped in this competitive economic system that can be highly unjust.  The tariff system has largely prevented West African countries from processing the cocoa they grow, thus keeping them trapped at the level of farming the cocoa. The value that is added to cocoa, therefore, ends up in the pockets of Western processors, while farmers in West Africa remain at levels near poverty.

One focus of PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation is eradicating systemic poverty. This focus highlights the need to “change laws, policies, plans and structures in our society that perpetuate economic exploitation of people who are poor.” Looking at the economics of cocoa, you can see that trade and tariff policies are one area that must be addressed if we are to be in true solidarity with communities that are impoverished.  This is something we can do only if we are together.

Fermented cocoa seeds drying in the West African sun. (Photo by Josh Heikkila)

When we meet global partners, we often hear stories about their everyday lives. Our West African partners tell us about the way God has endowed them with the gifts and skills they are using to thrive in this world. When we hear these stories, our own lives are enriched, and our faith strengthened. The Matthew 25 invitation reminds us that we also have to go deeper, because our own economic prosperity can sometimes be intricately tied up with perpetuating the poverty of others.

I wish I had solutions to all the problems we face, and answers to all the questions. Obviously, I don’t. But I trust that as we work together with our West African mission partners — listening and learning about one another’s lives — it will help us to work for the improved well-being of all God’s children.

Josh Heikkila serves as Presbyterian World Mission’s regional liaison for West Africa. Based in Ghana, he facilitates partner relationships, implements regional strategies and supports the work of mission personnel in the region. Subscribe to his letters. Consider supporting his ministry.

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