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The Link Between Chocolate and Deforestation

Updated on June 19, 2012

When we eat a chocolate bar to stock up our energy levels during stressful times or slurp hot chocolate on cold winter days, we cannot imagine the distance the cacao contained in what we are consuming has traveled, the work its harvesting involved and its history that reaches back to the Aztec and Maya civilizations. We forget that cacao grows in extremely poor regions of the world with tropical climates while it is consumed in the rich countries with cooler climates. We have been enjoying chocolate for years, not worrying about its origins or the risk of declining yields that worry large chocolate companies.

Cacao – a product of imperialism
Industrial manufacturing of chocolate only began at the beginning of the 19th century, even though the cacao tree was already worshipped by the Mayas in Central America and Southern Mexico. The Mayas prepared a beverage called Xocolatl, made of grilled cacao beans and mixed with water and other ingredients such as vanilla, pepper, cinnamon, chili and maize. This drink was considered to possess nutritious and revitalizing qualities. Due to the drier temperatures and higher altitudes in the north, the Aztecs had to acquire the beans through trade, as they believed that the consumption of cacao leads to wisdom and power and they also praised its aphrodisiac effect. They even used the beans as a currency and taxes were paid in the form of cacao beans to Aztec emperors. Cacao was only accessible to the wealthy and religious leaders in both cultures and was used in rituals and ceremonies. The designation Xocolatl was changed by the Spanish emperors to Chocolat and eventually modified by the English to become the term Chocolate, as it is used today. Even though the invention of the manufacturing methods of the type of chocolate that is consumed and adored today around the globe had its origins in Europe, we shouldn’t forget that it was originally a product of imperialism. Cortez tried the beverage after the Aztec emperor Moctezuma offered him Xocolatl in 1519. The Aztecs were defeated and destroyed in 1521 and 7 years later, in 1528, Cortez brought back large quantities of cacao beans to Europe.
In the 17th century, chocolate became popular amongst the Spanish upper classes after which the powder was exported to other European countries. In France it was discovered in 1615 and the production was privileged and had to be authorized by the king until 1693, when the production and sale of it was permitted nation-wide. The first Chocolate House was established in London in 1657 which was exclusively accessible to the rich community. Only in 1847, the first chocolate bar was produced by an English manufacturer as he created a mixture made of sugar, cacao powder and cacao butter. In 1875, a Swiss producer combined cacao powder, cacao butter, sugar and dried milk powder to make the first milk chocolate in history.

The natural environment of cacao trees
Cacao trees which officially bear the name Theobroma cacao, meaning Food of the Gods, grow in the tropics under dense rainforest canopy in riparian zones and well-drained soil. The conditions it is exposed to have a significant influence on its productivity. Temperatures between 21 and 32 degrees Celsius, rainfall between 100 and 250 cm and an elevation below 1000 meters are the ideal conditions for its growth. It does not grow in regions that are too mountainous or areas too much affected by monsoons or droughts. It can be found north and south of the equator within 10 degrees latitude of it. Most of the species grow in northwestern South America but cacao is harvested in many other countries around the globe. Leading providers are Ivory Coast, Ghana, Indonesia, Nigeria, Ghana, Brazil, Cameroon, Ecuador, Dominican Republic and Papua New Guinea, of which Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia are the leaders in world exports.


Monocultures and unsustainable farming methods lead to deforestation
There is an exceptionally low fertilization rate of cacao flowers and it often leads to chocolate shortages that the chocolate giants, the large companies, are majorly affected by. The solution is smaller and wild plantations. The cacao flower depends on the pollination by tiny midges that live in the shady most rainforest. The midges feel more comfortable in a natural humid environment than on the artificially created cacao plantations which are usually drier and too sunny. Apart from that, naturally grown cacao has over 400 different odors but on plantations there is only a small proportion of those which makes it difficult to attract the midges. In addition, the midges prefer an environment with a wide range of plant species and decaying matter on the ground, which is an environment that can usually not be found on plantations, especially plantations with intensive farming methods, unsustainable harvesting measures and monocultures. Monocultures guarantee higher short-term yields but as the soil rapidly becomes degraded and the lifespan of plants is reduced from 75 or 100 years to only 30 or less, farmers must move to other areas of land and clear more rainforest to plant cacao trees. Furthermore, this type of farming requires large quantities of water as well as chemical fertilizers which lead to more pressure being put on the ecosystems. But while multinational companies are worried about short-term profit and environmentalists raise concerns about deforestation, it is difficult to predict if a mutual solution that will be beneficial for both parties can be found.

Initiatives through fair trade and organic farming
Some initiatives have begun and been put into practice such as the practice of mixed farming where other plants grow alongside the cacao trees, providing habitats for other animals. This is a natural way of fighting off pests and the crop can be pollinated as the midges find the conditions and the environment that corresponds to their natural habitats. CEMOI is a chocolatier from France that has been active since the beginning of the 19th century when Jules Pares established the first chocolate factory in France. CEMOI Group is concerned about the sustainable management of cacao plantations and the manufacturing of aromatic, high-quality chocolate and chocolate products. For over ten years, the Group has been working on building up its fair trade network, closely involving local farmers and respecting the environment, the tropical biodiversity and respecting and supporting the labor of those working on the cocoa plantations by offering appropriate salaries. Cemoi established a joint venture between BLOMMER, PETRA FOOD (DELFI Group) and CEMOI, major players in the chocolate industry and created PACTS (Processors Alliance for Cocoa Traceability and Sustainability). This alliance made the commitment of controlling the improvement of the quality of Ivory Coast cocoa and adopting a sustainable development strategy including amongst others the improvement of yields through natural farming methods, a 3-stage fermentation process guaranteeing an aromatic flavor and long-term sustainability, quality and supply chain management efficiency.

The company has shown that it is possible to combine the objectives of a multinational while respecting the environment and sustainability at the same time. More initiatives like PACTS have to be initiated and the desire to generate short-term profits has to be combined with the will and motivation to protect the green planet that we inhabit. We need to be able to guarantee that our children and grandchildren are equally able to enjoy the rich and tasty flavors of chocolate in all of the different varieties and assortments we can find today. Join in and help make this become reality. Why don’t you try looking for fair trade chocolate brands in your supermarket? Do you think it’s worth spending the extra dollar?


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