British chocoholics may have unwittingly helped fund an African conflict, with an estimated $120m (£60m) from the cocoa trade being siphoned off into war chests in Ivory Coast, according to a report released today.
"There is a high chance that your chocolate bar contains cocoa from Ivory Coast and may have funded the conflict there, which leaves a bitter taste in the mouth," said Patrick Alley, the director of Global Witness, the London-based group behind the report.
Companies such as Nestlé and Mars source some of their cocoa from the troubled west African nation.
While much has been written about child labour on African cocoa plantations, the Global Witness report, Hot Chocolate, is the first to catalogue how cocoa has fuelled conflict on the west coast of the continent.
Ivory Coast supplies 40 per cent of global cocoa, making it the number one producer in the world. On the back of this natural resource, the country has built itself up into the so-called "Paris of Africa", with a downtown of gleaming skyscrapers and leafy suburbs where residents can enjoy an exquisite fillet steak washed down with a glass of expensive claret.
But in September 2002, what began as a troop mutiny became a full-scale civil war and the country divided into a rebel-held north and a government-controlled south with UN peacekeepers patrolling a buffer zone in between. Before long Ivorians were fighting with poverty and expatriates and aid workers were scurrying to relocate elsewhere in the region.
Global Witness says that among the many abuses of cocoa revenues during the "no war, no peace" stand-off, about $20m was embezzled by Ivorian national cocoa institutions and diverted to the government. Another $40m were funnelled into the president's war effort.
On the rebel side, militants extorted $30m each year from companies trucking cocoa through their half of the country - a illegal tax that "enabled them to survive as a movement", the report says.
Campaigners want the intermediary cocoa-exporting companies to be transparent about exactly what payments they make, and want big confectioners to be upfront about where their cocoa comes from.
"The chocolate industry is so secretive about their recipes that they don't tell you what's in the mix," said one of the report's researchers, who has assumed the alias Maria Lopez. "The consumer can pressure chocolate companies to put that information on the label so they know they are buying conflict-free chocolate."
The researcher has been forced to adopt an alias because of the danger of investigating the Ivorian cocoa sector. Three years ago a French-Canadian journalist, Guy-André Kieffer, who had been investigating the industry, was kidnapped in Abidjan, never to be seen again. Local media reported that he had been tortured to death.
With most confectioners simply listing "cocoa" on their chocolate bar packaging, it can be tricky for the consumer to make an informed choice.
When contacted by The Independent, spokespeople from Mars and Nestlé said their companies sourced cocoa from a number of countries, including Ivory Coast. A Cadbury spokesman said its cocoa came from Ghana.
Campaigners say that with a wobbly peace process just about staying on track in Ivory Coast, there is an opportunity for making changes to the cocoa industry practices.
The Ivorian President, Laurent Gbagbo, and the rebel leader, Guillaume Soro, signed a deal three months ago, mapping out the path to peace that would end with the country being reunified and elections in January 2008. But UN officials have already publicly said that the timetable has slipped behind schedule.
"We really do not know what's going to happen," Ms Lopez said. "There's no guarantee that the peace process will keep moving forward. We have seen it all unravel before."Reuse content