The world’s hunger for chocolate is a major cause of the destruction of protected forests in west Africa, scientists have said.
Satellite maps of Ivory Coast and Ghana showed swathes of formerly dense forest had become cocoa plantations since 2000, according to a study.
It found cocoa production was linked to 360,000 of a total 962,000 hectares (37.4%) of the deforestation since 2000 of protected areas in Ivory Coast, and 26,000 out of a total 193,000 hectares (13.5%) of the deforestation of similar areas in Ghana.
The global trade in chocolate was estimated to be worth more than a trillion dollars last year. Cocoa, its most important ingredient, is produced from the seed of the tropical Theobroma cacao tree. It is native to South America, but most is now produced in Africa, with Ivory Coast and Ghana accounting for two-thirds of production.
An estimated 2 million farmers in west Africa, operating farms of an average of just three to four hectares each, rely on cocoa for their income – usually less than $1 a day. They supply a complex network of middlemen, including public and private companies, who connect them to the world market, making the supply chain opaque.
This obscurity has made cocoa production a haven for human rights abuses, and chocolate has long been linked to slavery. But the latest research also links the indulgent snack to the climate and biodiversity crises that risk the catastrophic breakdown of the planet’s biosphere.
Like tropical regions, west Africa is rapidly losing its forests. Ivory Coast is estimated to have lost more than 90% since 1950, while Ghana is thought to have lost at least 65%. Cocoa production had been identified as one of the main causes of deforestation in both countries, alongside mining, selective logging and other agriculture, but the extent to which it bore responsibility was not certain.
An international team of researchers set out to accurately map the extent of cocoa cultivation in deforested areas using satellite imagery. They trained a neural network to scour the satellite imagery and identify cocoa plantations, double-checked their findings with teams on the ground in Ivory Coast and Ghana, then cross referenced them against areas mapped on the World Database of Protected Areas.
In total, the researchers found, cocoa was being grown on more than 1.5m hectares of protected areas across the two countries, including nearly 14% of Ivory Coast’s protected areas and 5% of Ghana’s. In some classified forest or forest reserve areas, close to four-fifths of land had been cleared to grow cocoa.
“The single most significant driver of deforestation in cocoa production is poverty,” said Kwame Osei, the country director for Ghana and Nigeria for the Rainforest Alliance, which was not involved in the research. “Cocoa farmers in west Africa receive a mere 6% of a chocolate bar’s retail price. They are on the losing end of the supply chain, too, bearing the brunt of chronically low prices and with few opportunities to negotiate.
“Cocoa farmers are also on the front lines of the climate crisis, which leaves them vulnerable to drought, pests, and diseases that can decimate a harvest. In turn, land degradation often leads to the transformation of forest areas, including protected areas, into new cocoa plantations.”
By Damien Gayle