Chocolate lust is ruining West African rainforests

A report reveals that major chocolate companies buy cocoa from illegally-cleared national parks in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

As if you needed another reason to feel guilty about indulging in your favorite chocolate bar, a recent investigation by Mighty Earth has revealed that much of the cocoa used by major chocolate companies, including Mars, Nestle, Godiva, and Hershey’s, comes from illegal sources in West Africa. By illegal, this means the cocoa was grown on national park or otherwise protected land that has been deforested to make space for cocoa plantations.

Ivory Coast and Ghana, both in West Africa, are the top two cocoa producers in the world. Mid-twentieth century, when Ivory Coast gained independence, its rainforests were largely intact, but in recent decades they have been decimated in the rampage to produce as much cocoa as possible.

“Many of Ivory Coast’s national parks and protected areas have been entirely or almost entirely cleared of forest and replaced with cocoa growing operations. In neighboring Ghana, the situation is similar: according to our analysis, 291,254 acres of protected areas were cleared between 2001 and 2014. In that same time, Ghana lost 7,000 square kilometers of forest, or about 10 percent of its entire tree cover; approximately one quarter of that deforestation was connected to the chocolate industry.”

This has had a devastating effect on wildlife, with Ivory Coast’s once famous elephant population dwindling to mere hundreds, many primates disappearing, and pygmy hippos, leopards, crocodiles, and pangolins losing habitats.

Clear-cutting rainforests for cocoa isn’t even beneficial over the long term for farmers. Loss of forest means loss of shade, nutrient retention, erosion control, nitrogen fixing, water regulation, and weed control. It makes crops far more vulnerable to climate change. It is not a prerequisite for cocoa crops, and “shade-grown systems can actually have a higher average productivity over the full life cycle of a cocoa tree”; but the problem is that many farmers want immediate results.

Cyndy Sims Parr — The fruit of the cocoa plant/CC BY 2.0

Chocolate companies are failing to take responsibility for their cocoa sources, which makes the problem worse. When presented with the findings of this investigation, all 70 companies did not deny sourcing cocoa from protected areas in West Africa and some admitted the need for action. A pledge led by Prince Charles was made in early 2017 to end deforestation in the cocoa industry, but no details for a plan have been released, nor have buyers said they will end purchasing agreements with suppliers selling illegal cocoa (which was an effective tactic for slowing deforestation in the Amazon for soy).

The industry is fraught for reasons other than deforestation. Slavery, child labor, and abuse are common, and ironically, chocolate continues to be enjoyed only by people in wealthy Europe and North America, unaffordable by the farmers who make it possible.

“On average, cocoa growers in Ivory Coast and Ghana are paid less than 80 cents (USD) per day and often work in dangerous conditions with long hours. Child labor is still prevalent throughout the industry, despite pledges by many chocolate companies to eliminate the practice.”

We’ve long said on TreeHugger that it’s important to seek out fair-trade chocolate and be willing to pay a premium for it. This report adds even more urgency to that recommendation. Read the whole thing here.