The Dark Secret of Valentine’s Chocolate

Close-up view of heart shaped candy

The Dark Secret of Valentine’s Chocolate


Since 1868, a box of heart-shaped chocolates has been the pinnacle of Valentine’s Day commercialization. In the U.S. alone, candy sales are expected to exceed $3.4 billion as of Feb. 14, and the Omicron variant has led to a sharp rise in the price of cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate.

One might think this is good news for cocoa growers from West Africa, where 70% of the 5 million tons of chocolate produced each year comes from West Africa. However, it is not. Instead of profiting, African farmers face an existential crisis triggered by the greed of multinational corporations and increasingly volatile cocoa prices.

What we are witnessing in Africa is that the cocoa industry is fueling unprecedented deforestation and poverty – ironically, the cocoa industry is now shamelessly exploiting the same farmers to get out of it.

In recent years, the Cocoa and Forests Initiative (CFI) has been pushing for an end to cocoa-related deforestation. Deforestation has been accelerating rapidly in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the largest cocoa producers in West Africa. Part of the problem is that much of the cocoa is procured indirectly — meaning that the cocoa is purchased through local traders, who often operate informally with limited public oversight.

Much of West Africa was deforested throughout the 20th century as a result of agricultural expansion and international trade in commodities, including cocoa. Only in recent decades, with the increasing availability of satellite technology, have we been able to scrutinize the disappearance of remaining forests, which have led to more frequent storms and increased risk of deadly flooding.

Many cocoa trees grown in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire since the 1990s lost productivity much earlier than expected, in part because the trees grew in shade rather than direct sunlight. As farmers desperately need more income, they increase their arable land to sell more cocoa.

The legacy of colonialism has created a $130 billion chocolate industry, and most cocoa farmers earn less than $1 a day. Farmers’ share of the cocoa supply chain accounted for just 6.6 percent of final sales of a ton of cocoa sold, with manufacturers (35.2 percent) and retailers (44.2 percent) making the biggest cuts.

The injustice within the industry reflects a larger issue of the challenges countries of the Global South face as they try to escape poverty and fail to extract higher prices for raw materials or control valuable areas of supply chains.

Three companies control 60 percent of the world’s cocoa trade. Rather than using this hegemony to make the industry more sustainable and egalitarian, the companies are blatantly circumventing cocoa pricing agreements designed to protect local farmers.

Deforestation in cocoa-producing countries is largely driven by poverty. The crop is grown almost exclusively by smallholders who often do not support more sustainable farming methods, such as planting shade trees around cocoa trees to establish better growing conditions.

Rising cocoa prices have prompted farmers in countries that traditionally do not produce cocoa to enter the cocoa industry, but with the consequences of deforestation in mind. The Bartoro people of southwestern Uganda are using the indigenous culture banyan or bark tree to shade the cocoa they previously used to shade their coffee.

Close-up view of heart shaped candyClose-up view of heart shaped chocolate candies.Chuck Fishman/Getty Images

We should not view the cocoa industry as an isolated example. In fact, the production of many forest risk commodities is closely linked. Palm oil (native to West Africa) is used in chocolate to create a smooth and shiny appearance and prevent it from melting. Smallholders make up a large proportion of farmers in cocoa production in West Africa and palm oil production in Southeast Asia.

In both cases, smallholder farmers need more support in turning to sustainable farming practices to curb deforestation than larger suppliers and producers.

In Malaysia, the government-backed Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil Certification Scheme aims to support smallholder farmers in getting certified. Since then, Malaysia’s deforestation rate has declined for four years in a row, and about 93 percent of the palm oil produced has been certified sustainable.

If Western countries do not encourage local sustainability initiatives in industries such as cocoa and palm oil, these industries risk becoming “poverty traps” where local farmers simply cannot afford to invest in sustainable farming methods. It is crucial that the wealthiest countries provide financial support to enforce stricter environmental laws in these industries, rather than simply blaming them for breaches – which, ironically, are driven by the West’s efforts to impose stricter environmental laws on commodities. demand driven.

In order to break the neocolonial trade model and control the distribution of wealth, African countries may soon have no choice but to give up exporting raw cocoa. This could mean producing the final product at home — which requires more resources, but could attract more conscious consumers who respond to stories of supply chains creating decent-paying jobs.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), world leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030. That said, there’s a reason even Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed the pledge: it’s not legally binding and allows for another decade of deforestation in Brazil. Again, actions speak louder than words.

In the past, global progress in slowing deforestation has been alarmingly insufficient, and the COP26 deforestation pledge may have the same belief that there are real dangers. In addition, research shows how consumer behavior in the world’s wealthiest countries can lead to the loss of nearly four trees per person per year, threatening the survival of forests in the tropics.

Given this evidence, Western countries must urgently acknowledge their complicity in environmental destruction and human rights abuses on African soil and support the implementation of key procedures for supply chain tracking and tracing.

Over the past few decades, multinational corporations have become a force in shaping the intertwined systems of people and planet around the world – and the cocoa trade is no exception. As consumers, we have the power to demand change: a more just and equitable global system that puts farmers in the Global South at the forefront.

Otherwise, chocolate will soon leave a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Western consumers.

Camila Barongi is the managing director of the Tooro Omutoma projectEditor-in-Chief of Jaro4ME And regularly speaks at UN summits.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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