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With ‘sustainable’ cocoa, Mars pushes climate, market risks onto farmers

  • Corporate strategies that force cocoa farmers to stay in place to increase productivity amid the impacts of climate change are putting smallholders at greater risk to economic and environmental impacts, a new study says.
  • The study analyzed efforts supported or carried out by Mars Inc., one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers and cocoa buyers, in Indonesia, which produces a tenth of the world’s cocoa.
  • “Many agricultural intensification initiatives assume that by boosting productivity, smallholder incomes will increase, and therefore vulnerability to climate shocks will decrease. Yet, the reality is much more complicated,” says study author Sean Kennedy.
  • “When some entity is saying, ‘Here’s a climate-adaptation program intended to keep people in place,’ often staying in place is not the best way to adapt to climate change,” he adds.

JAKARTA — Efforts to tie smallholder farmers into sustainable cocoa cultivation leave them vulnerable to climate change impacts and economic risks, according to a recent study that focuses on the practices of U.S. chocolate giant Mars Inc. in Indonesia.

“Outreach programs that are framed as benefiting small producers are actually benefiting corporate producers, rather than the people on farms growing cocoa,” study author Sean Kennedy, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, said in a statement released Jan. 13.

Kennedy analyzed the efforts supported or carried out by Mars, one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturers and cocoa buyers, in Indonesia, which produces a tenth of the world’s cocoa.

He identified Mars’s approach as two-pronged: imposing standardized farming practices, and creating financial dependencies. This combination leaves smallholder farmers financially beholden to Mars and its suppliers, and less able to abandon cocoa production to grow other crops or seek out other forms of livelihood even as market fluctuations and climate variability make cocoa farming harder.

Cocoa farmers with pods on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island. Image by Hariandi Hafid for Mongabay Indonesia.

Being locked into cocoa farming this way hurts the livelihood prospects and climate adaptability of smallholder farmers who have historically been highly mobile in response to seasonal variations and climatic disruptions.

“When some entity is saying, ‘Here’s a climate-adaptation program intended to keep people in place,’ often staying in place is not the best way to adapt to climate change,” Kennedy said. “People have been adapting to climatic variation for a long time in ways that often involved moving around.”

In an emailed response to Mongabay, Kennedy said that “Mars appears to view climate change and climate impacts through the lens of the commodity — in this case, cocoa — rather than through the lens of the producer.

“While this emphasis is understandable from a business perspective, it can mean that climate change responses focus narrowly on maintaining cocoa production without considering whether this is beneficial from a livelihood perspective,” he added.

A cocoa pod, cut open, grown on the Indonesian island of Bali. Image by Anton Muhajir/Mongabay Indonesia.

Kennedy said his findings were meant to help the general public better understand the downsides of fixing the labor and capital of cocoa farmers, which existing labeling and certification schemes offer very little information about. He said he also wants corporate-led climate adaptation efforts to focus on smallholder producers’ livelihoods, not commodities.

“Many agricultural intensification initiatives assume that by boosting productivity, smallholder incomes will increase, and therefore vulnerability to climate shocks will decrease. Yet, the reality is much more complicated,” he said.

“In many cases, it is the fact that smallholders have been brought into market relationships in which they have limited political power that has left them vulnerable to price shocks tied to market dynamics beyond their control.”

The study shines yet another light on the massive power imbalance between Mars and the people who grow the cocoa that goes into its iconic candy brands. Last year, a human rights organization in the U.S. filed a lawsuit against Mars, Nestlé and other chocolate companies on behalf of eight Malians. The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were allegedly trafficked into Côte d’Ivoire as children and forced to harvest cocoa that was ultimately bought by the companies.

A cocoa farmer on Indonesia’s Sulawesi Island. Image by Wahyu Chandra/Mongabay Indonesia.

Citation:

Kennedy, S. F. (2021). The power to stay: Climate, cocoa, and the politics of displacement. Annals of the American Association of Geographers. doi:10.1080/24694452.2021.1978839

Related listening from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry: the most climate-friendly and biodiversity-positive agriculture technique is growing, listen here:

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