- The world’s major chocolate companies have for years vowed to rid their supply chains of child labor and deforestation without much success.
- Marianne Martinet at the Earthworm Foundation argues that there are solutions to the issue.
- One way forward that also strengthens cocoa farmers’ resilience is agroforestry, the planting of useful trees and shrubs on, around, and among cocoa trees.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
Eating chocolate shouldn’t mean fueling environmental and social destruction.
But, as a stream of news stories and reports make abundantly clear, too often it does. Cocoa production in Ghana and Ivory Coast – the world’s biggest cocoa producers – is tainted by child labor and deforestation.
More than two million children are estimated to work in West Africa’s cocoa fields, and according to Global Forest Watch, in 2018 forest loss in Ghana and Ivory Coast increased more than anywhere else in the world, rising by 26% in the former, and 60% in the latter.
Yet these headline figures are only part of the story.
As grave as the situations in Ghana and Ivory Coast are – and as urgently as they require our attention – they aren’t the only regions where the chocolate industry is putting forests at risk: in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Cameroon, Indonesia and elsewhere, precious rainforests are threatened by cocoa expansion, as chocolate consumption around the world continues to rise inexorably. And unlike in Ghana and Ivory Coast – where the majority of the forests were torn down long ago – these regions still have a lot of forest to save.
Strong commitments, little progress
The world’s biggest chocolate companies are acutely aware of these problems.
Over the years, they’ve vowed to tackle them in various ways: as far back as 2001 they signed a pledge to eradicate the “worst forms” of child labor from their West African cocoa suppliers, and among a host of other measures, in 2017, 34 companies – including Mars, Nestlé, Hershey, Cargill and Mondelēz – as well as the governments of Ghana and Ivory Coast, promised to end deforestation and forest degradation in their supply chains.
More recently, the world’s major chocolate companies called on the European Union (EU), the world’s largest cocoa importer and consumer, to strengthen human rights and environmental due diligence requirements in cocoa supply chains.
Yet, so far, all these commitments haven’t had the desired impact.
Working with smallholders on the ground in Ghana, Ivory Coast and Peru, as well as with some of the world’s biggest chocolate companies, we see that this is less about the commitments themselves – which are often laudable – and more about how they’re applied.
Understanding what deforestation is and where cocoa expansion is driving it is the first step to halting it. Until now, there have been huge challenges in gathering this data, and pinpointing precisely where the endemic small scale deforestation, which erodes the integrity of critical forest areas, is happening.
As a result, efforts to stop deforestation have been focused on saving protected areas. But since governments’ efforts to protect these areas have had varying degrees of success, it means that both protected forests and those around them are being razed.
Technological advances are changing this.
Satellite monitoring systems now give us the information to get ahead of the problem by working at its source: on the frontiers of endangered forests. There, working in tandem with cocoa farmers, local communities, forest owners, companies and governments, we can develop solutions that protect forests, while, crucially, ensuring decent livelihoods for local communities.
Deforestation and social issues such as the grinding poverty that many cocoa farmers live under and the use of child labor go hand in hand.
To fight one, you have to address the other. One way to do this, and strengthen cocoa farmers’ resilience, is agroforestry: planting trees or shrubs on, around, and among cocoa plantations.
Major brands have adopted the agroforestry model to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. However, since many companies investing in this model have not prioritized conserving existing forests, it’s no surprise it hasn’t succeeded – although it has brought other benefits, including preventing soil erosion and improving fertility.
While agroforestry models, and finding ways to increase the productivity of small farms is a start – including supporting farmers to diversify their crops so they have other sources of income to compensate the volatility of the cocoa price – it isn’t enough.
See related: Mongabay’s ongoing series on this highly climate- and biodiversity-positive agricultural method, Global Agroforestry
One part of the solution for reducing the child labor which blights West Africa’s cocoa sector, is to make sure that the smallholders who dominate the industry earn more from their plantations and get a bigger share of the added value. Giving growers a bigger slice of the profits of a global chocolate industry worth more than $100 billion a year in sales, has been an issue for years.
Ten years ago the price for a ton of cocoa on the global market was $3,530. Today it’s around $2,800 – and it’s West African farmers who are paying the price for this drop.
A desperate farmer who produces one ton of cocoa a year over two harvesting seasons is susceptible to bad practices: using low-cost child labor and cutting down trees to increase the size of their farm.
Two ways to tackle this are, first, for farmers to be paid better for their cocoa, and second, to eradicate the corruption and lack of transparency pervasive among the middlemen and cooperatives in producer countries who buy the cocoa beans from farmers.
See related story from Central America: Chocolate and agroforestry accelerate in El Salvador
If farmers can then get a fair price for their cocoa, they will be able to manage their farms better. And managing their farms better will create a virtuous circle: their cocoa yields and soil quality will increase, and they will no longer have to chop down forests to make way for new plantations, or send their children into the cocoa fields to work.
Their resilience to the volatility of the global cocoa market will be strengthened, and ultimately, consumers around the world will be able to buy chocolate without walking an ethical tightrope.
Marianne Martinet is Director of Programs at the Earthworm Foundation, a non-profit organization which works with partners from farms to boardrooms to build value chains that work for people and nature.