THE DARK SIDE OF CHOCOLATE
How the cocoa industry is affecting our wildlife
As the world’s favourite sweet treat, chocolate is big business. Whether it’s white, milk or dark, globally we consume chocolate by the ton. In fact, between 2015– 2016 we chomped our way through approximately 7.3 million tons of it, and it’s predicted that in the coming year this incredible figure will rise to 7.7 million, which helps to explain why, as of 2015, the value of the dark chocolate market alone stood at $34.25 billion (approximately £24 billion). Our love for chocolate shows no sign of waning, but how much do we really know about it?
Chocolate has been cultivated for at least 3,000 years, with the first evidence of its production dating all the way back to 1100 BCE in Mexico, Central and South America. While many of us may regularly give thanks for the likes of Lindt and Mars, we actually owe the biggest debt of gratitude to the Aztecs, who, having seen the potential locked inside the unappealing shell of a cocoa bean, proceeded to transform it into a drink called ‘nahati’, meaning ‘bitter water’.
This delicious treat remained hidden within the depths of the Amazon and other remote parts of the Americas until the early 1500s, when a Spanish explorer by the name of Don Hernán Cortés began shipping the precious beans back to Europe. While the custom of drinking chocolate took quite a long time to take hold in Europe, there was no turning back – chocolate was here to stay.
“As of 2015, the value of the dark chocolate market alone stood at $34.25
billion (approximately £24 billion)”
As with any popular commodity, the rapidly growing demand for chocolate resulted in more and more countries seeking to grow cocoa beans, eventually leading to today’s global industry. Even so, two-thirds of the chocolate currently being produced comes from Africa alone – mainly the Ivory Coast and Ghana, although Indonesia is also a key player. Sadly, the spread of chocolate has resulted in the devastation of the wildlife in these three environmentally vital countries, with the Ivory Coast hit particularly hard.
Illegal deforestation has developed into a critical problem, 30 per cent of which is driven by the desire to clear forests to make room for cocoa plantations. Of the 23 ‘protected’ areas in the Ivory Coast, seven have so far been turned over to cocoa production, and if this rate continues experts predict that by 2030 the country will no longer have any forest left standing outside of properly protected areas and national parks.
The main victims of this rapacious deforestation have been chimpanzees and elephants. Recent reports have confirmed that 13 protected areas have now completely lost their primate populations, while already endangered species such as the white-naped mangabey and the roloway monkey now face extinction. The country’s elephant population has also been decimated, with an original population numbering in the thousands now reduced to between 200–400 survivors.
While the loss of their original living space and food sources is a major contributory factor in the demise of both animals, another key problem stems from their desperate efforts to find a new home. With only around four per cent of the Ivory Coast’s primary forests remaining, primates and elephants are being forced into ever-narrower corridors of jungle, which in turn makes them a lot easier to find and poach. Pygmy hippos, flying squirrels, pangolins, leopards and crocodiles are just some of the other animals that have suffered terribly for our love of chocolate.
The situation is similarly bleak in neighbouring Ghana, where around 30 per cent of the nation’s protected forests have been scythed down to make room for cocoa plantations. Unsurprisingly, this is having a devastating impact on Ghana’s chimpanzee population, which between 2001–2013 lost ten per cent of its forest cover.
Another victim of the seemingly unstoppable spread of cocoa plantations in Ghana are native frogs. There are 78 known species of frog occurring in the country, many of which are becoming increasingly endangered, partly as a result of the chemicals used to protect cocoa crops. Atrazine is a commonly used herbicide that eradicates weeds in order to allow cocoa plants to flourish. However, it is also known to turn one in ten of the male frogs exposed to it into females while chemically castrating as much as 75 per cent of the male population. This in turn can lead to a dramatic decline in an already falling population, as the effected males can no longer reproduce. Such is the level of destruction that one species, the Togo slippery frog, is now believed to be extinct in the wild.
The threat posed by the cocoa industry would be grave enough if it were restricted to the African continent, but this is far from the case. Indonesia is the third highest global exporter of cocoa and has witnessed the loss of 1.7 million acres of forest between 1988–2007.
This environmental devastation has displaced a host of endangered animals, including orangutans and the Sumatran species of rhino, elephant and tiger.
South America is yet another continent that has readily depleted its natural resources in a bid to chase the profits offered by chocolate. Cocoa production in Peru leapt
“The main victims of this rapacious deforestation
have been chimpanzees and elephants”
15-fold between 2007–2016, aided by organisations such as United Cocoa, which flattened almost 5,000 acres of pristine forest in 2012. This single clearance unleashed over 54 tons of carbon per acre and resulted in further encroachment into the Amazon.
With demand for chocolate only increasing, it seems as though there is little chance of reversing this drastic environmental carve up before it’s too late. However, there are some grounds for optimism, and it comes in the form of organisations such as Mighty Earth, who recently managed to pressure giants such as Mars and Nestlé into finally agreeing to stop purchasing illegal cocoa and to investing in reversing the deforestation that has been caused to date. We spoke to Etelle Higonnet, Mighty Earth's campaign and legal director, who explained how they managed to do it.
“By proving that major chocolate companies were buying illegal cocoa and naming them, we put them in a tough spot. Along with the media, donors and other companies, they in turn pressured West
African governments quite hard to sort out the legality issues. This, along with the good will of key actors inside the governments, had the effect of setting off deeper reforms from both states.
“Initially we met a great deal of resistance, but cocoa is more of a luxury, feel-good product than palm oil or soy, so cocoa companies are more vulnerable to campaigns than palm or soy companies. This makes them more likely to change. Moreover,
cocoa companies were already hit hard by scandals around child labour in the last 18 years. It’s made them more sensitive to a new wave of scandals. In that sense, Mighty Earth is standing on the shoulders of giants who already targeted the cocoa industry for decades to try and make it more responsible.”
If this crucial step is combined with the full-scale adoption of more ecologically minded growing techniques, Etelle believes that things really can start to change.
“Although the chocolate industry is far from being environmentally friendly, today we are confident that attitudes towards chocolate production are changing.
The industry is entirely capable of producing chocolate in an ethical way. To achieve this the chocolate industry must shift to 100 per cent shade-grown cocoa production. Moving from full-sun to shade-grown cocoa would help cocoa transition from forest enemy to forest friend. It would turn cocoa into a vehicle for partially regreening West Africa.” Only time will tell if the world’s leading cocoa growers and their multi-billiondollar customers are truly committed to changing their ways and working towards creating chocolate that is no longer tainted by destruction. While the many problems that plague the industry won’t stop us all tucking into our favourite bars, perhaps they will at least make us stop to wonder what else we’re unwrapping the next time we reach for one.
Below The main impact of growing cocoa is deforestation, which in turn displaces endangered animals
right The Sumatran tiger population has plummeted from around 1,000 in 1978 to less than 400 today