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World’s chocolate obsession eats up forests in Ivory Coast

As global demand for chocolate booms, ‘dirty’ beans from deforested national parks have entered big business supply chains

  • A cocoa sorting centre in Sobre. Even supposedly protected national parks are being used as cocoa farms.Image Credit: AFP
  • An Ivorian farmer in his cocoa orchard in Lakota. The chocolate industry is indirectly fuelling a catastrophicImage Credit: AFP
Gulf News

Ivory Coast: The world’s chocolate industry is driving deforestation on a devastating scale in West Africa, The Guardian can reveal.

Cocoa traders who sell to Mars, Nestle, Mondelez and other big brands buy beans grown illegally inside protected areas in the Ivory Coast, where rainforest cover has been reduced by more than 80 per cent since 1960.

Illegal product is mixed in with “clean” beans in the supply chain, meaning that Mars bars, Ferrero Rocher chocolates and Milka bars could all be tainted with “dirty” cocoa. As much as 40 per cent of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast.

The Guardian travelled across Ivory Coast and documented rainforests cleared for cocoa plantation; villages and farmers occupying supposedly protected national parks; enforcement officials taking kickbacks for turning a blind eye to infractions and trading middlemen who supply the big brands indifferent to the provenance of beans.

When approached for comment, Mars, Mondelez and Nestle, and traders Cargill and Barry Callebaut did not deny the specific allegation that illegal deforestation cocoa had entered their supply chains. All said they were working hard to eradicate the commodity from their products.

Up to 70 per cent of the world’s cocoa is produced by 2 million farmers in a belt that stretches from Sierra Leone to Cameroon, but Ivory Coast and Ghana are the giants, the world’s first and second biggest producers. They are also the biggest victims of deforestation. Ivory Coast is losing its forests at a faster rate than any other African country — less than 4 per cent of the country is covered in rainforest. Once, one quarter was.

The ballooning global demand for chocolate means that if nothing is done, by 2030 there will be no forest left, according to the environmental group Mighty Earth which today publishes an investigation into deforestation caused by chocolate. The final, insulting irony is that locals are so poor they could never afford to eat a Mars bar.

Evidence of deforestation is not hard to find. Inside the Mount Tia protected forest, Salam Sawadougou, a Burkinabe farmer, is hacking a yellow cocoa pod off one of his plants in a four-hectare plot. Here, the grey stumps of enormous ancient trees are all that is left of the forest.

“I burnt it little by little,” Sawadougou says, explaining that his cocoa needed full sun to grow. Farmers generally believe that recently deforested soil produces the biggest beans, so they remove the trees one by one, planting more cocoa as they go.

In recent years, the annual rate of deforestation inside parks has doubled, and in both Ivory Coast and Ghana, it is going twice as fast as deforestation in unprotected areas.

Cocoa is a monster that will eventually eat itself, scientists say. Farmers will miss the trees they cut and burnt down for the very reason that their shade would have protected their cocoa plants from increasingly parched, dry seasons, driven by cutting down trees.

Deforestation issue

Most big companies acknowledged the problem of deforestation for cocoa production. Barry Parkin, chief sustainability officer at Mars, said: “We are committed to identifying the best ways to end deforestation and forest degradation in the global cocoa supply chain. Nestle said it was “opposed to the deforestation of rainforests and peatlands around the world. Nestle regards it as one of the most serious environmental challenges facing the world.”

It noted that in 2010 it had pledged that none of its products should be associated with deforestation, and added that it supported international moves to secure zero net-deforestation by 2020.

Mondelez’s Cathy Pieters said that deforestation in supply chains was something they were actively trying to root out.

“As an individual company we have probably worked the longest on this. We are exactly in the middle of that process, because of the urgency and the need for a solution,” she said.

Hershey said it was committed to sourcing 100 per cent certified, sustainably sourced cocoa by 2020.

“We take concerns about deforestation and forest degradation very seriously,” said spokesman Jeff Beckman.

Many cocoa industry players — although not all — have pledged to end deforestation and forest degradation in a collective statement published in June. But this is a vague promise to try harder, while the real test will be the contents of the framework for action presented at the UN’s Convention on Climate Change in November.

Some of the farmers growing cocoa inside protected areas have been living there for decades, and how to resettle them and find them a new means of making a living is one of the major problems that the government and the industry need to work out in November.

None of the companies said they would support a moratorium on deforestation cocoa, despite the fact that one on soy worked well to stop deforestation in the Amazon. Neither did they say they would commit to 100 per cent shade-grown cocoa.

Government commitment to protecting national forests is also key. “Companies alone can’t solve this, and the government alone can’t solve this,” says Richard Scobey of the World Cocoa Foundation.

The situation inside the country’s 231 classified forests is even worse than in the parks, and this has partly to do with the different authorities that run them.

Another irony is that the farmers are not the ones earning the vast profits to be made from chocolate: many live in poverty, often exploited and underpaid for their crop. Most cannot even afford that basic luxury in the west: a bar of chocolate. “It’s white people who eat chocolate, not us,” one says.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd