Chocolate Offers New Hope for Saving Endangered Rainforest

worldwatch paper 168 Cocoa Photo Resources for Worldwatch Paper 168

Washington, D.C.—Good news for chocolate lovers: your sweet tooth could help save one of the world’s most endangered rainforests, the Brazilian Atlantic Forest. In a study released today by the Worldwatch Institute, researchers Chris Bright and Radhika Sarin outline how cocoa—the main ingredient in chocolate—could be grown in a way that would help restore the northern part of the Atlantic Forest biome, while encouraging other forms of development that preserve forest instead of destroying it.

“Cocoa has serious potential for conservation because it is a high-value crop that can be grown under rainforest canopy,” says Bright, the lead author of Venture Capitalism for a Tropical Forest. “Cocoa is shade-tolerant, so farmers don’t have to clear all their forest in order to make a living with it.” The study argues that the Brazilian cocoa sector is well positioned to make the most of this conservation potential. According to Bright, Brazil could grow, manufacture, and export mainstream chocolate products that preserve forest, boost rural employment, and turn chocolate consumers into an international constituency for the Atlantic Forest as a whole.

The Atlantic Forest biome extends along most of Brazil’s coast and accounts for 13 percent of the country’s area. The biome is considered a “biodiversity hotspot”—a global priority for conservation—because it is both highly diverse and highly threatened. For example, “old growth” Atlantic Forest has been found to contain as many as 476 tree species in a single hectare (about 2.5 acres). That’s the highest level of tree species diversity per unit area ever recorded anywhere on Earth. But only about 7 percent of the biome remains in its original state.

Brazil currently produces around 6 percent of the world’s cocoa, making it the fifth largest cocoa-producing country. About 80 percent of Brazil’s cocoa comes from the state of Bahia, in the northern part of the Atlantic Forest biome. Most Bahian cocoa is grown in an agroforestry system known as “cabruca,” in which the forest overstory is thinned and underplanted with cacao trees, the little trees that bear the cocoa beans. This system is used to some extent in certain other cocoa-growing countries as well, but Brazil has by far the largest “chocolate forest” in the world.

Cabruca is hardly virgin forest, but over the past several decades, its wildlife value has become increasingly important as the natural forest fragments have continued to disintegrate. Cabruca is now the dominant forest type within the Bahian cocoa belt, and it provides habitat for many rare plant and animal species.

But the cabruca itself is also degrading. Very little of Brazil’s chocolate forest is regenerating: there are not enough forest saplings coming up in it to replace the big trees when they eventually die. And during the 1990s, an epidemic of a fungal cocoa disease, combined with an extended period of low cocoa trading prices, led many farmers to abandon production and convert at least some of their cabruca to other uses.

The decline of the Brazilian cocoa sector was also a social disaster: it threw some 90,000 farm laborers out of work.

Now that cocoa prices have risen and fungus-resistant cocoa varieties are available, Bright and Sarin argue that the cabruca system should be revived, but in a form better suited to current conditions. “Reviving cabruca could yield substantial payoffs, both ecologically and socially,” says Bright. “But that revival would have to go beyond business as usual. The big opportunities here are not in mass production of generic cocoa. They’re in the development of new cocoa products—new ways of connecting consumers to the forest and to the people who live there.”

The study recommends a strategy called “forest cocoa,” which is designed to promote a set of ecological and social goals. Its ecological aims are to ensure that the cabruca is regenerating, to eliminate the use of disruptive agricultural chemicals, and to contribute to forest restoration within the cocoa belt.

Its social aim is to help create a stronger—and greener—rural economy. Forest cocoa would build employment through local processing; it would also encourage the development of other forms of eco-commerce, such as forest restoration and ecotourism.

Forest cocoa would have a political goal as well. By producing its own organic, eco-friendly chocolate products, Brazil could begin the process of transforming consumer demand for such products into an international donor base for restoring not just cabruca, but the Atlantic Forest as a whole.

“Brazil already has all the ingredients it needs for this recipe except for one,” says Bright. “Forest cocoa could really use some outside investment. As a global commodity, chocolate is worth more than $40 billion a year. We should be able to find the relatively modest sums necessary for developing cocoa as an eco-business.”


Additional Resources:

Online Discussion
More information on chocolate, organics

World Watch Magazine, November/December 2001:
  • A Cacao Chronology: Critical Moments in the Relationship Between Theobroma cacao and Homo sapiens
  • The Restoration of a Hotspot Begins
  • Chocolate Could Bring the Forest Back

Worldwatch Resource Center