When you take a bite of chocolate, you partake in a history of exploitation of forest resources five centuries old. Chocolate mania hit Spain and then Europe after merchant ships returned with beans of the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) from Central and South America. To meet demand, tropical rainforests were cleared for cacao plantations.
Cocoa as a global commodity
While the major export countries have changed, the journey of cacao–or cocoa, the processed powder form— to your chocolate bar looks much the same as it did in the past. It begins with a bean grown, fermented, and dried by a smallholder farmer, one of five or six million who produce 90% of globally traded cocoa. The beans pass between many hands to enter a vast supply reaching mostly Europe and North America. Over half of cocoa confections are sold by just five companies–Ferror, Hershey, Mondelez, Mars, and Nestle–in a global market worth more than $12 billion annually.
Cocoa’s forest footprint
Cacao is native to the Americas, but in 1822, the Portuguese planted it on an island off French Gabon–the beginning of African cocoa production. Today, farmers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire produce about 60% of the global cocoa supply. Projections suggest that Indonesia and Vietnam will soon become important players, too. Both countries have the type of moist, premontane forest that cacao likes. And they have an economic interest in filling demand that Africa will not be able to if sustainable practices are not adopted.
Unsustainable cocoa production drives deforestation in places like Côte d'Ivoire. Image from Mighty Earth.
Cacao farms lay waste to vast areas of forest. Farmers believe they get the biggest beans and yields by growing cacao in the full sun on land recently cleared of forest. The moist and fertile soil supports establishment of cacao plants and strong initial harvests. But over time, without the shade, moisture, and other benefits that forests provide, the conditions become less hospitable. Continuing cacao production on cleared land is hard, requiring more labour and inputs such as fertilizer and pesticide.
As a consequence, once production wanes, farmers expand production into new, fertile forest areas. Between 1988 and 2007, 2.3 million hectares of primary forest was cleared for cocoa farms. Since 1960, Côte d'Ivoire has lost 80% of its forest cover to cacao production, as many landless people have tried to eke out a living by growing cacao, even in parks and protected areas. Today, most of those farmers live under the UN-defined poverty line–not wealthy enough to afford a chocolate bar.
Communities deep in the Moskitia Jungle, Honduras, harvest and process cocoa pods from ancient trees for later use in a variety of products. Image by Vidal Villela, 2021.
The forest-positive opportunity
Theobroma cacao is, at heart, a shade tree. A better farming system, rooted in indigenous traditions, takes advantage of its natural preference for the understory of moist tropical forests. Cacao agroforestry grows cacao in partial shade, among other trees and crops. The partial (as opposed to full) shade helps maximize the cacao crop, keeps pests and diseases at bay, protects against temperature extremes, and increases local biodiversity. With clever planning, these production systems can create stable rural employment, diversify livelihoods, increase food security and return degraded land to production.
Cacao export countries and industry leaders increasingly recognize the need to improve the sustainability of cacao. For example, the World Cocoa Foundation created the Cocoa Forests Initiative toward halting deforestation. Through it, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire have introduced farm mapping to improve supply-chain traceability. Multiple certification schemes aim to do similar. Such programs are a step in the right direction, but engaging in responsible procurement with smallholder cooperatives is the most direct way to contribute to forest- and people-positive outcomes.
According to ICCO information, in 2019 Côte d'Ivoire accounted for 46% of global cocoa bean production, and Africa as a whole accounted for 77% of the market. Image by ICCO 2019.
Communities supplying forest-positive cocoa products
Learn more about cocoa
Learn more about protecting the future of cocoa and chocolate with agroforestry by reading this Mongabay article
Learn how cocoa farming can help us fight against deforestation by reading this article
Learn how forest-positive cocoa farming can support biodiversity by reading this article and this one on a similar topic
Visit the World Cocoa Foundation website to see how cocoa farmers are addressing deforestation with their Cocoa and Forests Initiative
Ever wondered how much rainforest is in your chocolate bar? This WRI article tries to answer that question.