Unjust system keeps farmers trapped near poverty level
July 26, 2020
In the backyard of my house in Accra, Ghana, 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!
In addition to these trees, there is another fruit tree in West Africa that has had a huge impact on the people and economy for almost 150 years. It’s the cocoa tree. 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.
The fruit, rather than hanging from the branches of the tree, grows as a pod off the trunk. The seed of this fruit 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.
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.
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, 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.
Revised Common Lectionary Readings for Sunday, July 26, 2020, the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Today’s Focus: West Africa Farmers
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Gracious God, we give you thanks for your glorious creation and world mission ministry. Amen.