A photo of a worker digging for something in area that is facing deforestation

climate change

How Is Our Chocolate Addiction Killing the Environment?

DAME spoke with environmental crusader Etelle Higonnet, who discovered our love of cocoa is destroying our forests. Is there any way to reconcile our cravings with saving the planet?

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It was an accident,” Etelle Higonnet, the 38-year-old campaign director of Mighty Earth, a non-profit dedicated to championing environmental causes, explained to me over a series of conversations that started in May. “We were looking at deforestation in palm oil, but what we learned was that, in West Africa, the destruction of forests is actually caused by cocoa.”

Cocoa, the glorious crop that becomes chocolate, is grown in a thin band 20 degrees north and south of the Equator, with 70 percent of production centered in countries including Ivory Coast, a nation with the highest levels of biodiversity in West Africa. This diversity (held in soils, pollinators, and a wide range of flora and fauna) is part of the rich biological fabric of forests, home to 80 percent of the world’s plants and terrestrial animals.

Deforestation doesn’t only result in their displacement; it erodes the diversity we need to sustain food, medicine, fuel, and other materials we extract from the natural world. It is also one of the leading causes of global warming, generating (along with agriculture and other land use changes) about 24 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

What Mighty Earth uncovered this past spring—and verified this summer—is evidence of massive deforestation in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the top two suppliers of the world’s cocoa. “Without action,” their report states, “Ghana stands to lose all remaining forests outside its national parks in the next decade. Chimpanzees, elephants, and other wildlife populations have been decimated by the conversion of forests in both countries to cocoa; in Ivory Coast, only 200-400 elephants remain from an original population of hundreds of thousands.”

I spoke with Higonnet by phone, Skype, and over email as she traversed the planet trying to hold manufacturers and governments accountable for this loss.

Tell me how you stumbled upon the cocoa-deforestation connection and what was most surprising about your discovery.

Our first surprise was that deforestation was so high in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Then, I was just blown away by the extent of destruction. Ivory Coast has lost around 85 percent of their forests since 1990 and at least half before that, from the time of independence [from France, in 1960]. In Ghana, we’ve lost about 60 percent of forests since 2000 and lost around 70 percent from independence [from the British, in 1957] to 2000. So we’re talking about—overall, since independence—both countries losing around 90 percent of forests. How could it have been that I didn’t know this?

I was also super surprised that cocoa was the top driver. If you asked me a year ago, I’d have said logging. But no. It turned out to have been cocoa. It shocked the hell out of me.

What’s confusing is that this loss is occurring in areas that are supposed to be protected. In Ivory Coast, for example, cocoa drives 30 percent of deforestation but, in protected areas, it’s caused 93 percent of losses. Why is this happening?

Cocoa is concentrated in forests because forests keep soil super-fertile and yummy and rich and lovely and moist. Once they’re chopped down and you plant full-sun cocoa, the soil gets depleted and the weather gets drier, and everything goes down the tubes a bit. Hence, constant movement farther and farther into forests for cocoa. Full sun is horrible for soil in the long run.

But those areas should have been protected. The cocoa there is totally illegal. Growing it is illegal, and I am told the cocoa itself is illegal so selling it abroad is akin to international trafficking of illegal goods. But it doesn’t have to be this way if the entire industry shifts over to serious shaded agroforestry. The real deal: 40 percent shade, with around 70 trees per hectare [about 2.5 acres]. Not some wishy-washy greenwashing of 10 or 20 trees per hectare. That will not save either country from an environmental cataclysm.

You shared your discoveries with 50 cocoa processors and chocolate manufacturers. How did they respond?

All the companies answered but two. It was a huge range, from the most positive and responsive, which was Barry Callebaut [the world’s largest cocoa processor], to the worst, which was Godiva. On the call, Godiva basically said the inquiry was inappropriate and hung up. [When DAME reached out to Godiva, their PR representative responded via email to say they were “unable to assist with the story” as they “did not have anyone available to discuss sustainability.”]

Mars is the only other company that didn’t respond, but they did send a statement saying the company was going to spend $1 billion on sustainability efforts. It didn’t clarify where the money would go or how much would be allocated to cocoa. [Mars is the brand behind Twix, M&Ms, Milky Way, and more. Michelle O’Neill, Vice President of Corporate Affairs Europe & Eurasia, confirmed to DAME that the company has signed on to the Cocoa and Forests Initiative and stated, “While we cannot share the exact financial details of what we will dedicate to cocoa and tackling deforestation, addressing deforestation and degradation in the cocoa supply chains is a priority for us.”]

No one debated a single fact we sent them. On the contrary, most companies seemed to acknowledge that they knew these facts to be correct. Most said they will take action and reform, but they can’t make clear commitments yet and they’d rather make the reforms all together.

You also shared these findings with members of the government in Ivory Coast and Ghana …

The Ivorian government has been pretty responsive and I have a call scheduled with the director of the Coffee-Cocoa Council [Conseil du Café-Cacao] a few weeks from now. I have yet to get a response from any Ghanaian governmental entity, including the Ghana Cocoa Board [Cocobod].

But I want to stress: This is not an Ivorian problem; it is an industry problem. It’s in Ghana and the Democratic Republic of Congo and Peru and so on; I just didn’t have time to investigate all those places. In Indonesia [the third largest global producer of cocoa behind Ivory Coast and Ghana], 1.7 million acres of forest were cleared for cocoa between 1988 and 2007. That’s equivalent to 9 percent of the nation’s total deforestation for crops. This is a global problem. The whole industry needs to change.

Who should, ultimately, be held responsible for this loss? Local governments? Local agents? Multinational corporations?

Every single one of us all along the chain is responsible—and has a role to play. The responsibility is strongest for the people at the bottom of the value chain at the trader level, but I would argue even a consumer buying a bar of chocolate and savoring it is also responsible.

What should consumers do?

Watch [chocolate companies] like hawks. For 15 years, they talked a great talk about fixing child labor, but what’s been the result? Pathetically little change, with millions of kids’ lives still being ruined and 2.1 million still engaging in child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana. [The linked Tulane University report indicates this is a 21 percent increase in child labor over five years and 96 percent of those children were involved in “hazardous work.”] 

Clearly, the companies know how to talk the talk, but can they walk the walk? In 15 years, will we be discussing the death of the last elephant and the disappearance of the last forests while they deploy a barrage of fancy excuses? Or will we save West Africa’s forests from the brink?

There aren’t any certifications in cocoa or chocolate that address deforestation. What should consumers look for when they buy chocolate?

I think Fair Trade is adding it on, and I am going to speak with Rainforest Alliance and UTZ about how to add this. For now, chocolate lovers should mention this issue every time they go to a chocolate store or buy chocolate, and also write to their favorite companies. Consumer complaints and comments absolutely filter up.


Why is this so important to you?

How we treat the planet is a reflection of how we treat people: You abuse the forest, you abuse humanity. They are flip sides of the same coin. Maybe if we can handle the forest, we can transform the lives of people … from bitter to sweet.


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