Saving Rainforests With Greener Chocolate

Rainforest Destruction Not Sustainable

“Much of the cocoa that’s consumed around the world does not originate in highly biodiverse primary rainforests,” says Eric Servat, the Rainforest Alliance’s manager of sustainable value chains for Southern Europe. “Most often, it comes from degraded secondary forests in West Africa—something I saw with my own eyes when I visited Ghana for the first time.”

Many researchers charge that increased cocoa cultivation in Ghana over the past 20 years has resulted in massive deforestation. For nearly 40 years, the overall trend has been to eschew a shade-grown approach and instead cultivate the crop using “full-sun” techniques—as do nearly 35 percent of Ghanaian producers and 50 percent of their peers in Côte d’Ivoire. There are several reasons for this, according to Goetz Schroth, who directs the Rainforest Alliance’s cocoa program:

deforestation and climate change

  • Cocoa farmers increasingly use hybrid strains that were developed to produce greater yields under a full-sun system.
  • With little-to-no access to legal timber markets, farmers lack the incentive to plant timber trees among their cocoa plants.
  • Cocoa farming has been done by migrants who lack traditional knowledge of complex agroforestry systems and believe—not without reason—that if you surround cocoa trees with too many shade trees, you might deny the cocoa plant sufficient aeration, favor the development of diseases such as black rot and encourage rats and monkeys to feed on the cocoa pods.

The Rainforest Alliance and our partners offer training to farmers and workers, teaching them the principles and practices of sustainable agriculture with the aim of protecting biodiversity, improving local living conditions and boosting farm productivity. We advocate agroforestry methods that require the planting of trees on agricultural lands.

In Côte d’Ivoire, for example, Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa farms must have a minimum number of native tree species—notably fruit trees—per every 30-acre (12-hectare) parcel, as well as a minimum of nine shade-tree species. The main objective is for farms to reach a shade density of 30 percent, which can be done with 12 to 18 adult trees per hectare, depending on the species. When farmers alternate between re-planting cocoa trees and planting shade trees, they enrich their soil and allow it to regenerate.

deforestation and climate change

There are, however, disparities in conditions among Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in different regions. For example, it’s rare to find traditional agroforestry systems that feature all three levels of canopy, except in certain areas of Cameroon and in Central America, part of the broad region where the Amazonian cocoa plant is said to have originated. On these original, more densely forested cocoa plantations, yields are lower, and the goal is to help certified producers cultivate a premium crop that can generate greater revenue to compensate for decreased quantity. Shade-grown methods allow for better maturation of fruits and the development of flavors that can be marketed to connoisseurs. We have pilot projects north of Cuzco, Peru, where this approach is being implemented, and we’ve also been working to capitalize on the “Coffee and Biodiversity” initiatives that we launched in El Salvador ten years ago.

The need for change is urgent. “I visited some cocoa plantations in Sierra Leone that were located in a nearly intact jungle,” said Eric Servat. “They were magnificent to look at, but they couldn’t support the basic subsistence needs of farmers. That’s typical among older farmers who lack the means to maintain their farms or modernize them and improve the quality of their crop. Without those kinds of changes, they can’t survive in today’s market.”

reforestation and carbon capture

The Rainforest Alliance promotes agroforestry as an alternative to slash-and-burn agriculture in West Africa, Madagascar and Central America, offering farmers an economically attractive option that can earn them premiums for the quality of their crop. Agroforestry also provides essential ecosystem services, including preserving soil fertility and water resources, preventing erosion and storing carbon. And for local communities, agroforestry also offers residents social and cultural benefits, including medicinal plants and the preservation of water sources and sacred spaces for future generations. Everyone benefits from this “return to the forest.”

Today, 10 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. Support sustainability when you shop by choosing products, like chocolate, that feature the Rainforest Alliance’s green frog seal.


climate change and deforestation

Sacred Seedlings is a global initiative to support forest conservation, reforestation, urban forestry, carbon capture, sustainable agriculture and wildlife conservation. Sustainable land management and land use are critical to the survival of entire ecosystems.

Sacred Seedlings is a U.S.-based program that supports the vision of local stakeholders. We have projects ready across Africa. We seek additional projects elsewhere around the world. We also seek volunteers, sponsors and donors of cash and in-kind support. Write to Gary Chandler for more information