By Linn Smith
Cocoa plantations created by clearing away the rainforests create multiple environmental problems.
February 5, 2016—Who doesn’t like chocolate? When we eat this delicious melt-in-your-mouth treat we want to enjoy it–not think about the environmental destruction connected with it or how it may be affecting our everchanging climate. My first reaction–NO! Not chocolate too! But alas–it seems so!
To keep up with our sweet tooth demands, cocoa farmers have shifted from natural, sustainable farming to methods that are environmentally destructive, including clearing away the rainforests.
Cocoa Production: A Huge Industry
Cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is raw cacao that has been roasted at high temperatures. According to Wikipedia, cocoa farming can only take place 15 degrees north or south of the Equator, with West Africa being the biggest producer. The Ivory Coast produces 40% of the world’s cacao for chocolate. Other cacao producing countries are Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Peru. The market value for the world’s chocolate for 2016 is approximately $98.3 billion–a huge industry that can also be corrupt, involving everything from child labor to smuggling.
The Environmental Impact of Cocoa Production
What is the environmental impact of our sweet tooth? Cacao is traditionally grown on small farms. The trees that produce the beans grow naturally under the large leafy canopies of the rainforests, but many cocoa farmers have cleared away the rainforest to create cocoa plantations in the open sunlight, as it makes the pods easier to harvest.
Cocoa plantations created by clearing away the rainforests create multiple environmental problems. Farmers have moved towards plantations because they produce a greater quantity, lower quality and a higher yield of cocoa, but planting cacao in an open, cleared field attracts pests which requires spraying with chemicals. Also, animal habitats are destroyed and tons of CO2, which is stored in the leaves and trunks of the cleared trees, is released into our atmosphere, furthering the warming of our planet. “The more intense the farming practices are, the more damaging they are to the ecosystem. Cocoa farming becomes a destructive circle as farmers wear out the soils and cut further into the forest to obtain fresh land. All of these processes stress the Cacao trees and eventually lead to lower yields of cocoa, giving the opposite effect to what the farmers expect from these practices.”
Clearing the Rainforest for Cocoa
Where rainforests are protected by the government, farmers and corporations will often cut down forests illegally. An example of this was recently documented by scientists and conservation groups, charging United Cacao with “quietly cutting down more than 2,000 hectares (one hectare equals about 2 1/2 acre) of primary, closed-canopy rainforest along the Peruvian Amazon.” Scientists watched this happen via satellites which monitor the earth’s surface and provide data on how the earth is changing over time. In 2013 United Cacao also boldly stated on their website that they were starting the “clearing work to ready their land for a cacao plantation.”
Dennis Melka, CEO of United Cacao, has also been involved in the palm oil industry, cutting down rainforests for palm oil. Clinton Jenkins, ecologist at the Institute of Ecological Research in Brazil, says, regardless of data, that United Cacao will continue to claim the land was already deforested when they obtained it—that they created their cocoa plantations on previously cleared land and United Cacao had nothing to do with the deforestation! But Clinton states, “It was already deforested because United Cacao has deforested it!”
Educating Cocoa Farmers
Training farmers in sustainable farming is the key to deforestation. Organizations such as the World Cocoa Foundation, Deforestation-Free Cocoa and Rainforest Alliance are attempting to return cocoa farming to its sustainable roots, planting the trees in their natural habitats underneath the broad leafs of the rainforest canopy. Even though rainforests are already cleared in many places, farmers can still be educated in ways to sustainably grow cacao, such as financing farmers on the condition they will not deforest further, ensuring fair labor and organic practices, and selling through a farmer’s coop that assures higher prices.
What can you do to help? Buy only Rainforest Alliance chocolate. “The Rainforest Alliance has been working to strengthen the position of smallholder cocoa farmers since 2006, both on the land and in the marketplace, by training them to conserve natural resources, increasing productivity and securing a decent living and working conditions.”
Rainforest Alliance brands are stamped with the little green frog on the wrapping! Some companies that use chocolate from Rainforest Alliance farmers are: Clif Bar, Dove Dark Chocolate, Dagobac, Hershey’s Bliss, NibMor.