Environmental impact of chocolate, protected forests in Africa

Chocolate, that we happily enjoy during the holiday season, comes mainly from West Africa where it is the culprit for the deforestation catastrophic for the environment and biodiversity. Ivory Coast and Ghana are the main producers of cocoa in the world. In these countries, the cocoa industry wreak havoc by invading illegally tropical forest yet classified as protected.

Ivory Coast is the first cocoa producer in the world with 40% of the global market. According to the World Bank, the cocoa industry in Ivory Coast represents 15% of the GDP, over 50% of export earnings and two thirds of jobs depend directly or indirectly, which makes it a capital sector for the country’s economy. Ghana, bordering country, has the second place. Together, these African countries produce between 60 and 70% of the global cocoa but sacrifice for this their protected forests.

Environmental impact of chocolate

Plantation of cacao-tree, Ghana, 2013. © jbdodane https://www.flickr.com/photos/jbdodane/9736747957

Cocoa and the illegal deforestation of protected forests

The cocoa production in Ivory Coast and Ghana is responsible for the alarming deforestation at the heart of protected areas. It is a completely illegal act that is denounced by the environmental GNO Mighty Earth, of which one of the field of action concerns the forest protection, in a report published in September 2017, titled “the bitter deforestation of chocolate”.

The extent of the damages in Ivory Coast is alarming: today there are only 6 million hectares of primary forests remaining out of the 16 million that covered the country in the 60s. Such a decrease can be explained by the demographic increase but mainly by the deforestation linked to the culture of cocoa. The Ivorian forests now very fragmented are for the most part protected areas, meaning national parks or forest reserves. Yet, in several protected forests, 90% of the land was converted to cocoa plantations also called cocoa trees. Mighty Earth makes an assessment equally pitiful in Ghana where 7000 kms of forests have disappeared between 2011 and 2014 to the benefice of illegal plantation of cocoa trees.

Such a practice is neither new nor harmless. In September 2016, the Society of development of forest plantation (Sodefor), state society of Ivory Coast had already given the alert on this phenomenon estimating that 40% of the Ivorian chocolate was produced in protected areas. According to Sodefor, the majority of forests in the country is retreating in front of the illegal intrusion of cocoa exploitations. The producers impose themselves with axes cutting down trees or burning the forest.

With the exhaustion of African tropical forests, Mighty Earth fears the worst: the cocoa industry could be exported to Congo, Peru or South-East Asia while keeping the current Ivorian and Ghanaian models of cocoa production. These regions will see their forests disappear.

Environmental impact of chocolate

Agricultors recolting cocoa pods, cocoa trees fruits containing beans. Photo par l’ICCFO (International CoCoa Farmers Organization), 2015. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cocoa_farmers_during_harvest.jpg

Biodiversity threatened by cocoa

The wild fauna supposed to be safe thanks to the classification of forests in protected areas, suffers from the illegal production of cocoa. The protected areas are shelter to many threatened species, their situation worsens with the retreat of the forests, the fragmentation of their natural habitat and poaching.

Thus, in a study published in March 2015 in the journal Tropical Conservation Science, researchers based in Ivory Coast and USA established a direct correlation between the “colonization” of Ivorian protected areas by cocoa exploitations and the disappearance of primates. They noticed that the presence of illegal cocoa plantation in 20 forests out of 23 studied and the total disappearance of primate populations in 13 of them.

According to Mighty Earth, chimpanzees living in protected forests had to retrat following the intrusion of cocoa producers on their territory and rip their subsistence means to little “pockets of forests”. Pygmy hippopotamus, flying squirrels, pangolins, leopards, crocodiles and elephants are also impacted by this phenomenon. These last, have seen their population go to 200 to 400 individuals while they were several tens of thousands last century.

An ethical matter in the cocoa industry

Human rights violated

Chocolate, a sweet little treat that gladly overflows the luxury market, has a high price to pay. Indeed, poverty and human rights violation rule the countries producing it. This “bitter side of chocolate” is reported by many actors such as Mighty Earth in its report or by a study sponsored by the Fren fair-trade body titled “The hidden face of chocolate” published in May 2016. To supply the global market, the cocoa industry stands on intensive agriculture methods and on exploited working force. Cocoa beans are bought from Ivorian and Ghanaian farmers at a ridiculously low price. They earn less than $1 per day whereas they work in grueling and dangerous conditions as they are in contact with pesticides and chemical fertilizer without protection. Furthermore, too many cocoa plants still use forced child labor.

Many chocolate makers concerned

For its investigation, Mighty Earth worked its way up the supply chain of cocoa to big names of chocolate but warns that it is likely that others may be involved but cannot name them because of lack of evidence. The GNO suspects these great chocolate makers of complicity and are suspicious of a possible corruption of governments. It blames them for “turning a blind eye” on these illegal practices from cocoa producers.

Amongst the incriminated actors are some international big dealers of foodstuffs such as the Singaporean firm Olam, the American Cargill as well as the Swiss group Barry Callebaut, global leader of cocoa production and high-quality chocolate.

These three dealers have half of the international cocoa trade. They provision in San-Pédro and Abijian harbors, cities in Ivory Coast, supplied in cacao beans by a network of intermediaries and “trackers in charge of making the link between local growers and big dealers”.

On the receiving end arrive multinational firms of which are famous brands, to whom big dealers quoted above resell cocoa: Mars, Ferrero, Nestlé, Magnum, Lindt, Starbuck’s Coffee, American companies Hershey and Mondelez, specialized in chocolates and cookies.

Environmental impact of chocolate

Cocoa beans in a jute bag ready to be exported. Photo par Irene Scott/AusAID, 2013.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cocoa_farmer_David_Kebu_Jnr_holding_the_finished_product, _dried_cocoa_beans_ready_for_export._(10687070725).jpg


For a cocoa production sustainable and ethic

COP23: the cocoa industry commits

The World Cocoa Foundation denies the accusations of GNO Mighty Earth reminding that 35 big chocolate companies are on the war path to counter the illegal production of cocoa in Ivory Coast and Ghana with governments. These actors have formed an alliance and suggested a common action plan at the COP23 in Bonn, in November 2017, the Cocoa & Forests Initiative with several objectives:

  • End the illegal production of cocoa in national parks and forest reserves.
  • Protect and restore forests, thanks to new methods such as agroforestry, a mode of operation of agricultural lands association trees and cultures. The ide ais to plant cocoa trees under already existing trees.
  • Invest to develop the sustainable production of cocoa, by trainin local farmers or by giving them access to more efficient agricultural technologies.
  • Work hand in hand with local farmers, that can be severly impacted by the hardening measures to protect forests, to insure a good transition towards a sustainable and legal production of cocoa.
  • Insure the tracability of cocoa and chocolate all along the supply chain, since the production source – plantations – to great manufactures of chocolate based in occidental countries.
  • Improve the forest reserve management, meaning knowing them better to insure a better protection.

This action plan goes accordingly with the Paris accords on climate, as it promotes the development of the cocoa sector which contributes to the fight against climate change by reducing the carbon emissions. Forests are reservoirs sequestering carbon therefore protecting them from deforestation reverts to reducing global warming.

Responsible chocolate for the holiday season

In this festive period, giving chocolate without feeling guilty and supporting the responsible agriculture is possible if we choose organic chocolate or fair-trade chocolate. To do so, we can point out the “faire trade” logo below:

The Max Havelaar fair trade label certifies that we buy products that are ethical and respectful to the environment, meaning produced in the respect of human rights.

We can also turn to specialized resellers in fair trade such as Ethiquable or Alter Eco that propose organic products from fair trade.