Like coffee beans, the cacao seeds from which we derive chocolate can only be grown successfully in equatorial regions – right where the world’s few remaining tropical rainforests thrive. Worldwide demand for chocolate leads to temptation among growers to clear more and more rainforest to accommodate high-yield monocultural (single-crop) cacao-tree plantations.
What are left are open, sunny fields with dramatically lower levels of plant and animal diversity. Adding environmental insult to injury, most cacao plantations use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that further degrade the land that once teemed with a wide variety of rare birds, mammals and plants.
Another problem with chocolate production is the conditions endured by workers that pick and process the cacao seeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has documented some 284,000 children between the ages of nine and 12 working in hazardous conditions on West-African cacao farms.
In Africa’s Ivory Coast, for example, where more than 40 percent of the world’s cacao is grown, underage cacao workers are routinely overworked, performing often-dangerous farming tasks in a setting that some liken to slavery. As a result of these and other related injustices, so-called “fair trade” advocates have targeted large producers of cacao to improve working conditions and pay living wages that allow workers to get their kids out of the fields and into schools.
Some cacao farmers enlisted the help of scientists and environmental groups to find ways to produce chocolate more fairly and more sustainably.
The non-profit Rainforest Alliance, which works on similar issues with coffee growers, is partnering with Ecuadorian cacao growers to develop environmentally and socially responsible cacao production standards. The standards seek to maintain critical conservation areas, reduce pressures to convert more forestland to cacao plantations, and provide social and economic benefits to local communities.
As a result, some 2,000 cacao growers in five Ecuadorian communities have formed cooperatives that help find new markets for their products, all while adhering to fair-labor standards and environmental-protection measures.