Africa: 'Tis the season to… Save the forests from chocolate

guest column

The holiday season is chock-full of scenes of celebration: latkes and lights, cookies and carols, collard greens and communion. And chocolate. Lots of chocolate. The two weeks surrounding Christmas are the biggest candyfest of the year. According to studies, the Christmas season is when sales of boxed chocolate peak in Australia, when 30% of France's annual chocolate sales happen, and in the United States it's when 70% of adults give or receive a box of chocolates.

But this sweet season obscures a bitter truth: the primary areas where cocoa is grown—Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Ecuador, Indonesia, and beyond—have experienced a dramatic decline in forest cover and biodiversity as a result of cocoa cultivation. And a new report, published just this week, shows that corporate promises have not been enough to solve the problem.

Last year, I interviewed Ivorian poachers during an undercover investigation to film illegal cocoa inside parks. They told me the national parks were so decimated that there were no animals left to hunt. 'Nothing is left,' said one poacher who requested anonymity. When I scouted for any surviving chimps and elephants during my visits to parks, not a creature was stirring.

 Mighty Earth discovered this challenge last year, when trying to assess causes of deforestation in West Africa. The findings from satellite maps surprised us: Cocoa turned out to be the top driver of deforestation in the Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana. These nations rank #1 and #3 for the highest rates of deforestation in all of Africa. They're winning the Africa cup of deforestation. Côte d'Ivoire has lost over 85 percent of its forests since 1990 alone. After learning of this problem, we went into the field, documented how illegal cocoa was finding its way into Kit Kats, Snickers and Hershey's kisses, and alerted local governments and 50 major chocolate companies.

Our bombshell report shocked the industry in September 2017 with its clatter, and most major companies sprang to see what was the matter.

In November 2017, 22 major players in the chocolate sector joined the Ghanaian and Ivorian governments to commit to No New Deforestation for cocoa in West Africa. Since then, even more companies have joined, many of them committing to deforestation-free cocoa worldwide. Supermarkets have joined the fray as well. Recently, Cameroon and Liberia announced they, too, plan to switch over to national plans for forest-friendly cocoa. And in the EU, Parliamentarians have started to debate an EU cocoa law.

Unfortunately, too much of this progress still exists only on paper. Our new report, "Behind The Wrapper: Greenwashing in the Chocolate Industry," found that despite the promises made by both industry and governments, forest destruction for cocoa in West Africa has continued.

While companies and local authorities have taken some actions to limit deforestation, we documented that farmers who engaged in deforestation for cocoa were still able to openly sell their cocoa without any repercussions. Farmers we caught red-handed clearing forest for cocoa told us that they did not face sanctions, cuts in their supply chains, or even warnings. In Côte d'Ivoire's Southwest cocoa region alone, deforestation in 2018 so far is equivalent to 15,000 American football fields of forest. The numbers for previous years are also bad - 21,000 football fields in 2017 and 13,000 football fields in 2016.

The governments in both countries and industry must urgently work together to address the unacceptable discrepancy between their commitments and their implementation. They must expedite serious joint monitoring alongside civil society efforts, and they must do so before next deforestation "danger season." That season starts in January.

Other countries must join in too. Colombia, Cameroon and Liberia have demonstrated leadership in trying to begin to address the problem alongside Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana. However, the rest of the world remains a deforestation fiesta zone for cocoa.

There is urgent need to save the forest homes of pygmy hippos in Sierra Leone, gorillas in Nigeria, orangutans in Indonesia, and sloths in Peru.

Moreover, we have yet to see the industry decide to fix what they broke and make a New Year's resolution to replant trees all over the 9 million hectares of cocoa covering the world to make it bird-friendly, "shade-grown," agroforestry cocoa.

It's up to us to hold the industry accountable this holiday season. Hundreds of thousands of consumers have already acted, and chocolate lovers one and all can help shift the industry from naughty to nice by simply insisting that holiday chocolate they purchase is "Deforestation-free." The message will quickly trickle up so that a truly Happy Christmas is one filled with forest-friendly chocolate that can help preserve elephants and other vulnerable species from extinction.

 Etelle Higonnet is the campaign director for Mighty Earth, an NGO dedicated to eradicating deforestation.

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