Conservation Through Chocolate
WASHINGTON, DC, December 5, 2003 (ENS) - Chocolate lovers could help save one of the world's most endangered rainforests, conservationists said Thursday. A new study details how cocoa - the main ingredient in chocolate - can be grown in way that would restore the northern part of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest and encourage other forms of development that could preserve the rainforest.
"Cocoa has serious potential for conservation," said Chris Bright, researcher with the Worldwatch Institute and lead author of the study "Venture Capitalism for a Tropical Forest."
It is a shade tolerant, high value crop that can be grown under rainforest canopy, Bright explained, and the Brazilian cocoa sector is well positioned to make the most of this conservation potential.
Most of the ingredients needed to unleash chocolate's conservation power already exist in Brazil, according to Bright and coauthor Radhika Sarin, a former Worldwatch colleague.
The report finds that 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 country is already the world's fifth largest cocoa-producing country, producing some six percent of the world's cocoa.
"The big opportunities here are not in mass production of generic cocoa," Bright said. "They are in the development of new cocoa products, of new ways of connecting consumers to the forest and to the people who live there."
About 80 percent of Brazil's cocoa comes from the state of Bahia, in the northern part of the Atlantic Forest biome.
Conservationists are keen to find sustainable economic strategies that can preserve the Atlantic Forest biome, which extends along most of Brazil's coast and accounts for 13 percent of the country's area.
It is considered a "biodiversity hotspot" because it is both highly diverse and highly threatened - but only about seven percent of the biome remains in its original state.
"Old growth" Atlantic Forest has been found to contain as many as 476 tree species in a single hectare (2.5 acres) - the highest level of tree species diversity per unit area ever recorded anywhere on Earth.
Most Bahian cocoa is grown in an agro forestry system known as "cabruca," in which the forest over story is thinned and under planted with cacao trees - the little trees that bear the cocoa beans.
Bright says 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.
The wildlife value of the cabruca - or chocolate forest - has become increasingly important as the natural forest fragment have continued to disintegrate, Bright said. Cabruca is now the dominant forest type within the Bahian cocoa belt and provides habitat for many rare plant and animal species.
But Bright cautions that the cabruca itself is also degrading. Very little of Brazil's chocolate forest is regenerating because there are not enough forest saplings coming up in it to replace the big trees when they eventually die.
An epidemic of a fungal cocoa disease during the 1990s - 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 study details that the decline of the Brazilian cocoa sector was also a social disaster, costing some 90,000 farm laborers their jobs.
Bright and Sarin say that now - as cocoa prices have risen and fungus resistant cocoa varieties are available - the cabruca system should be revised and revived.
"Reviving cabruca could yield substantial payoffs, both ecologically and socially," Bright said. "But that revival would have to go beyond business as usual."
The social aim of the strategy is to help create a strong, ecologically sustainable rural economy. Bright and Sarin say forest cocoa would build employment through local processing and 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, the authors say. 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.
Bright acknowledges that the forest cocoa strategy needs one final key ingredient - outside investment.
But he says finding the "relatively modest sums necessary" to develop Brazilian cocoa as an eco business should not be too difficult.
The authors say forest cocoa would cost more than ordinary cocoa - but not much given consumer trends toward sustainable and organic products.
They point to the cost of "sustainable cocoa," beans that are certified as both organic and fairly traded. The minimum price for these beans was $1,950 per ton in September 2003, about 20 percent more than the average cost of standard cocoa.
"A 20 percent increase sounds pretty steep, but assuming that the final product is not destined for the lowest end of the price scale - as convenience store chocolate - that extra cost would probably not amount to much from the retail consumer's point of view," the authors write.
They note that global organic market has been expanding rapidly - in the United States alone, the market has expanded at 20 percent per year over the past decade.
"About 30 percent of the U.S. population now consumes organic products at least once a week," according to the report. "The connection to conservation appears to be an important factor in this growth."