Human beings are curious by nature, but at what point does wondering about something turn into a life-threatening fact-finding mission? All the time, would be the appropriate answer for investigative journalist Miki Mistrati. After all, he is the Dane who gave the world the award-winning documentary The Dark Side of Chocolate.
The globally renowned film, released in 2010, set out to document the trafficking of African children in the chocolate industry.
The 46-minute documentary shot over 18 months was aimed at educating consumers on the realities of their seemingly innocent purchases from supermarket shelves.
"The idea for the film came about from a visit to my local supermarket where I'd gone to buy some chocolate," Mistrati said. "I saw a variety of chocolate bars and one of them had the Fair Trade mark on it, so I began to wonder, if one was Fair Trade what about the other six chocolate bars?"
Mistrati spoke at the recent Bold Talks in Dubai, an annual event that hosts a selection of acclaimed international speakers on a diverse range of topics. The aim of the Bold Talks is to engage the community in deeper and more meaningful conversations and is targeted at those who crave knowledge in pursuit of positive change.
"When I got home from the supermarket I Googled the issue; because I was genuinely curious as a consumer, how chocolate was made, after seeing only one bar with the Fair Trade logo on it," he said. "What I found were lots of NGO reports about child labour and the trafficking of children, but no journalism on this subject."
Putting a price on life
According to the International Labour Organisation there are over a quarter of a million children who work on cocoa plantations in West Africa, which is the world's largest cocoa-supplying region. The cocoa harvested in West Africa accounts for 70 per cent of worldwide production. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the two largest cocoa-producing countries on the African continent, with cocoa from Ivory Coast alone accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the world's chocolate.
Figures from the United States State Department reveal there are approximately 110,000 children who work under the worst forms of child labour in the Ivory Coast — 12,000 of which are victims of human trafficking.
"In the modern world journalism is very important because it has a big impact on how people react," Mistrati said. "For me, an NGO report is good but at the end of the day it's important to show people how things are for real. So this was my issue, trying to find out if there was really child trafficking going on in West Africa."
It was through the secret filming in Mistrati's documentary that the world saw the horrific reality lived by some West African children. The Dark Side of Chocolate exposed how children as young as 8 were being bought and sold for the measly price of €230 (Dh1,104) — facts which were officially denied by cocoa producers and plantation owners.
"People said part of African culture is that kids help their parents on plantations, but this was not kids with their parents," he said. "There were children as young as 8 being taken from Mali, Burkina Faso, Togo, and Benin, who were then transported to Ivory Coast." The cost of €230 for a child from Burkina Faso, for example, included transportation and indefinite use of the child by the plantation owners, he said.
"Most of the young girls who are victims of trafficking go into the plantations to work as maids for the plantation owners," he said.
Ironically the daily price listed by the International Cocoa Organisation on April 2 showed the cocoa stock price per tonne to be $2,269.22 (Dh8,283) — the price of approximately eight children.
So effectively, a tonne of chocolate that ends up in chocolate bars on supermarket shelves is what is melting on the little fingers of children. The same chocolate, which is a mere delicious treat to some oblivious children, in reality cost eight West African children their entire childhood, innocence and possibly their lives.
"During an interview, the director of the International Labour Organisation told me that what I did in 40 minutes was more powerful than what the United Nations had done in 40 years," Mistrati said.
The white side of chocolate
So why does this husband and father of two indulge in these self-imposed missions to uncover the truths about the retail and food industry?
"I have two children and they often ask me why someone else can't do the journalistic work I do," he said. "But I just think it's important to show the world what the back story of all the stuff we buy is."
Mistrati has been a journalist since 1994 and has to date made more than 40 award-winning documentaries on diverse topics, ranging from food production to the porn industry.
"I like to investigate any subject I think is important about the stuff we eat or wear or about issues such as terrorism," Mistrati said. "It's so important because governments in all countries have such an easy time making and breaking rules; so it's important to have journalists be the watchdogs of how things are run."
Mistrati added that since the release of The Dark Side of Chocolate he has been approached by big corporations such as Nestle. He said the global corporations, which at the time of making the documentary refused to comment on his findings, claim they are now involved in aid projects to combat human trafficking.
"There has been progress in this industry I think, because I've been invited to some of the companies for a meeting," he said. "When I go they just try to tell me they are not responsible for how the cocoa is harvested as it's done by a third party."
He added he has been told more than $75 million has been spent over the past decade on West African aid projects by the global chocolate industry.
For this reason, Mistrati is now completing work on a follow-up to The Dark Side of Chocolate, set for release in December.
"I'm still in the ideation stages but maybe I will call it The White Side of Chocolate," Mistrati told Weekend Review. "It will be about the aid projects from my trips back to Ivory Coast."
He anticipates the follow-up to the first documentary will shed light for consumers of chocolate on how the international chocolate industry has come together in aid projects in West Africa.
Needless to say, Mistrati is an investigative journalist to the core who remains determined to continue on his sometimes life-threatening missions of uncovering the truth.
"My role as a journalist is to show consumers the truth and it's their choice if they want to buy the products or not," he said. "My work is important because, to me, a democracy is a free press that digs into the powers that be to make sure corporations and governments are not messing around with people."