Chocolate and deforestation

Chocolate plays a significant role in deforestation, particularly of the tropical rainforests in West Africa. Since my last post on the Top 10 Ethical Chocolate Brands, I thought it would be useful to have a series of posts examining the major social and environmental issues around chocolate. By examining one item in depth, even a humble chocolate bar, we can cover issues that apply much more widely. And even on its own, chocolate is a perfect example of a product that spans the range from highly destructive to fairly beneficial. So here’s an overview on the link between chocolate and deforestation.

Deforestation in West Africa

Most of the world’s chocolate is sourced from West Africa – the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) in particular, followed by Ghana, Nigeria and neighboring countries. This is especially true for the largest corporations (Mondelez, Hershey, Nestlé, etc.) which source commodity market cacao that has already been pooled together by collectors and other middlemen. The alternative, of course, is to buy from smaller chocolate makers who can source cacao in smaller quantities from specific farmers and cooperatives. But why does it matter that the multinationals don’t have much control over sourcing of cacao?

In 2015, researchers from the Ivory Coast and the US published a study on cacao farming and local extinction of primates. Here are some quotes from the paper:

Côte d’Ivoire comprises part of West Africa’s Guinean Forest Region, an ecosystem of great biological richness, species diversity, and endemism. The region is a World Biodiversity Hotspot, hosting over 2,250 endemic plant and 270 vertebrate species.

Wildlife within Côte d’Ivoire’s protected areas (PAs; national parks and protected forests) is increasingly threatened by two illegal activities: hunting and full-sun cocoa farming. The great majority of forest degradation in the PAs surveyed is the result of cocoa farming. 74% of the total surveyed PAs have been transformed into cocoa plantation

Our data reveal a significant positive correlation (r² = .736, p < .01, α = 0.01) between cocoa farming and the absence of primate species inside Côte d’Ivoire’s national parks and forest reserves

Unless illegal cocoa farming is similarly controlled, even effective enforcement of anti-hunting laws will not prevent the loss of additional primate diversity, since habitats capable of supporting primate populations – including those within protected areas – will no longer exist

That’s pretty grim. The correlation between the disappearance of primate species and the prevalence of cacao farming is undeniable. And it makes total sense – a full-sun cacao farm doesn’t have the high canopy, food sources, or other features that would support primates.

Two primates are shown to illustrate the impact of cacao farming on primate species. On the left is a pair of Colobus vellerosus, absent from all Protected Areas, dominated by sun-grown cacao farming, surveyed in Côte d’Ivoire; On the right is the northern giant mouse lemur, living in shade-grown cacao farms in Madagascar.
Primates threatened (left) and protected (right) by cacao farming. Left: Colobus vellerosus was absent from all Protected Areas, dominated by sun-grown cacao farming, surveyed in Côte d’Ivoire; Right: the northern giant mouse lemur, found living in shade-grown cacao farms in Madagascar in a study commissioned by Beyond Good (Images: Palm Oil Detectives and the German Primate Center).

In 2019 a Yale 360 published an investigation into the role that the chocolate industry has played in the deforestation of West Africa. It’s focused mainly on cacao farming within the Ivory Coast’s protected areas:

In the past half-century, few countries have lost rainforests as fast as the Ivory Coast. More than 80 percent of its forests are gone. Around 40 percent of the country’s cocoa crop — more than a tenth of the world’s chocolate bars — is grown illegally in the country’s national parks and 230 supposedly protected government-owned forests.

International companies that buy the cocoa are offering to manage the degraded forest reserves provided the government legalizes cocoa production in them.

Etelle Higonnet, deforestation and human rights expert, believes that this is a dangerous precedent for other cacao-farming areas such as Indonesia, the largest cacao producer outside of Africa:

“Other nations such as Indonesia could decide to simply lower the protections on their forests. I can imagine Bolsonaro in Brazil also having a field day [delisting] protected areas.” – Etelle Higonnet, Yale 360

Thankfully, Bolsonaro has only a matter of days remaining as President of Brazil. But the threat to global forests is still very real.

Deforestation by chocolate: how to avoid it as a consumer

Death by chocolate takes on a new meaning when you think about the deaths that result from widespread deforestation. Not just deaths, but local extinctions of species including primates. I’ll keep this simple and follow it up in the next two sections.

Here are two important actions that we can take as consumers:

  1. Avoid chocolate from large multinational corporations.
  2. Support chocolate that’s made from shade-grown cacao.

Avoid chocolate from large multinational corporations

This isn’t too complicated, really. The major confectionary makers have promised for decades to clean up their acts. In 2018, I wrote a post on slavery in the chocolate industry that discussed how many of the biggest corporations will often just play for more time. Following the 2001 Harkin-Engel Protocol that asked the industry to self-regulate on slavery,the big players gradually committed to be slavery-free by 2020. That bought them two decades and then…

In 2015, a study conducted at Tulane University found that the number of children working in the Côte d’Ivoire cocoa industry had actually increased 51% since 2009. More details and numbers are available from Slave Free Chocolate and a 2017 report from the Global Slavery Index

Companies like Nestlé, which still battles ongoing court cases brought forward by former slaves, changed their goal.

The same applies with deforestation. Call me cynical but I suspect that the major players would just like to wait the situation out until there are no primates remaining. It’s similar to the palm oil story in Indonesia and Malaysia. So, I’m proposing that we simply avoid the big brands – the kind of chocolate bars that you’ll see in your local 7-11 store.

I’ve argued before that it’s sometimes worth supporting ethical products from a less-ethical corporation because it helps steer the company in the right direction. Please let me know if you would like to suggest any chocolate bars and we can take a closer look.

EU Bans products responsible for deforestation

Perhaps within a few years, EU residents won’t have to worry about whether the chocolate on their supermarket shelves is responsible for deforestation – if the latest legislation works out. 

The EU passed a law on Dec 6 to ban import of products (raw materials or products made from them) that are responsible for deforestation.

Companies selling their products into the EU will have to prove their goods are not linked to deforestation, or face fines of up to four percent of their annual EU turnover. – BBC

Caio Carvalho, president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association (Abag), told Mongabay by phone. “It is madness, an aggressive and unmeasured posture.” – Mongabay

Well he sounds worried but you have to wonder, when you look at some of the criticisms, is it enough and how easily enforceable will it be?

Support chocolate that’s made from shade-grown cacao

The story of sun-grown cacao is similar to how things have played out with many products bought and sold on commodity markets, such as mainstream coffee. As coffee production intensified to suit commodity markets that favor price over sustainability, it became dominated by full-sun farming. Here’s a quote from a GSP post on the benefits of shade-grown coffee:

Though some of the forest understory is cleared for farming, a rich web of plant and animal life remains. As a result, shade grown coffee plantations provide corridors for migrating birds to move between forest fragments, attract and support economically valuable pollinators such as bees and bats, and provide ecosystem services such as filtering water and air, stabilizing soil during heavy rains, storing carbon and replenishing soil nutrients.

The same applies to chocolate, or any of the products that can be sourced from sustainable agroforestry systems. There are several things to consider, such as the use of pesticides (some particularly nasty ones are used on cacao) and fertilizer. But one of the best ways to determine if a cacao farm can support endemic species and habitats is to look at how many other kinds of trees are present, particularly large trees that provide shade. But how much shade is needed?

Shade-grown cacao: How much shade is enough?

According to a 2018 paper in Nature Sustainability, around 30% shade cover seems to represent an ideal compromise between crop yield, climate mitigation, climate adaptability, and biodiversity.

Our results suggest that cocoa agroforests up to 30% cover are far superior to monocultures because they do not strongly compromise production, while at the same time they provide benefits for disease management, climate mitigation and adaptation and biodiversity conservation – Climate-smart sustainable agriculture in low-to-intermediate shade agroforests

Shade trees help regulate temperature and humidity around the crops and are able to help keep harmful organisms in check. In these heterogeneous environments, diseases spread less quickly, and fluctuations in temperature can be buffered by shade, creating more stable yields over time. And the results have uncovered just that; at around 30% shade coverage yield is not yet affected by the shade trees but the numerous ecological benefits they provide are all present.  – Centre for Agriculture and Bioscience International (CABI)

First author on the paper, Wilma Blaser commented that, with certain practices, the number of shade trees can be pushed even higher without negatively impacting cacao yields:

“Targeted application of fertiliser, timely pest control, regularly pruning, or weeding could potentially increase cocoa yields even under a higher shade canopy.” – Wilma Blaser, CABI

Examples of chocolate made from shade-grown cacao

I decided to focus on this topic after researching the chocolate company Beyond Good (formerly known as Madécasse) on Ethical Bargains. Beyond Good chocolate is sourced and largely made in Madagascar, with expansion into Uganda under way. The forests of East Africa are just as important as those on the West side – particularly the island of Madagascar, which is host to so many unique species.

Madagascar has 107 species of lemurs, 103 of which are threatened with extinction (due to deforestation). Five of those species live in our cocoa forests—the northern giant mouse lemur (vulnerable); the Sambirano mouse lemur (endangered); the Sambirano fork-marked lemur (endangered); the Dwarf lemur (endangered); and Gray’s Sportive Lemur (endangered).  – Beyond Good, on Treehugger

Beyond Good’s cacao suppliers are shown on an interactive map, each with a photo and brief bio, including the size of their farm (often just a few acres) and even an estimate of the number of trees. Most of them have had a relationship with Beyond Good for over five years.

The information on the number of trees per farm is really useful because there are separate counts for “cacao trees” and “total trees.” The largest producer (Théodule) has the following stats:  Total Trees: 94404 and Cocoa Trees 73958. So there are around 20,000 non-cocoa trees on this farmer’s land, or around 20% of the total number of trees.

A typical parcel of cocoa forest in our supply chain will have 75% cocoa trees and 25% shade trees. – Beyond Good, on Treehugger

So, Beyond Good’s suppliers are close to that ideal level of shade cover, providing much more support for biodiversity and climate change mitigation than sun grown cacao.

Even banana trees and young cocoa trees have this sort of beautiful, symbiotic relationship. Cocoa trees require full shade in their first five years of life. Banana trees are planted next to cocoa trees to provide that shade for the cocoa (and bananas for the farmer). The life span of a banana tree is five to six years, at which point it dies off just as the cocoa tree is strong enough to survive without the banana tree. Other trees—jackfruit, mango, citrus—provide shade for the cocoa, and fruit for the farmer. – Treehugger

Instead of chopping down forests to pave the way for additional plot land, the farmers have been converting rice lands into new shaded areas where cocoa pods sprout alongside banana, jackfruit and citrus trees. – TriplePundit

Entering a cacao forest in Madagascar. A dirt road into the forest is lined iwth diverse trees. Chocolate and deforestation.
Entering a cacao forest in Madagascar – TriplePundit

Several of the brands on the list of Top 10 Ethical Chocolate Brands were selected in part because of their support of shade-grown cacao. Here’s another example of sustainable cacao agroforestry, from Brazil.

One example is the shaded-cocoa production in Brazil, a practice known as cabruca. A species of New World monkey –the golden-headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) – is not only able to live, but even to thrive in such agroforestry matrices. – 2015 paper on cacao farming and local extinction of primates.

Dengo chocolate is made using this form of cabruca agroforestry and is available in parts of Brazil.

The traditional cabruca system for cacao farming in Brazil. The image, from Dengo Chocolate, shows an aerial view of a diverse rainforest containing cacao trees. Chocolate and Deforestation.
The traditional cabruca system for cacao farming in Brazil, Image from Dengo Chocolate

Vote on ethical chocolate brands

When I made the list of the Top 10 Ethical Chocolate Brands, I knew that it wasn’t comprehensive or perfect. I’m adding Beyond Good to the list as I hadn’t researched the brand until this week. That’s also why I’m asking you to change the list by voting on chocolate brands so that we can start to approach a consensus. So please take a moment to vote!

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