Week of 2/3/08

Dear EarthTalk: I heard a reference to "Earth-friendly chocolate" and was wondering about what goes into chocolate that would raise environmental concerns.

—Ben Moran, Providence, RI

Like coffee beans, the cacao seeds from which we derive chocolate can only be grown successfully in equatorial regions—right where the world"s few remaining tropical rainforests thrive. As worldwide demand for chocolate grows, so does the temptation among growers to clear more and more rainforest to accommodate high-yield monocultural (single-crop) cacao tree plantations. What are left are open, sunny fields with dramatically lower levels of plant and animal diversity. Adding environmental insult to injury, most cacao plantations use copious amounts of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides that further degrade the land that once teemed with a wide variety of rare birds, mammals and plants.

Another problem with chocolate production, although not specifically an environmental concern, is the conditions endured by workers that pick and process the cacao seeds. The International Institute of Tropical Agriculture has documented some 284,000 children between the ages of nine and 12 working in hazardous conditions on West African cacao farms. In Africa"s Ivory Coast, for example, where more than 40 percent of the world"s cacao is grown, underage cacao workers are routinely overworked, performing often-dangerous farming tasks in a setting that some liken to slavery. As a result of these and other related injustices, so-called "fair trade" advocates have targeted large producers of cacao to improve working conditions and pay living wages that allow workers to get their kids out of the fields and into school.

Conventional chocolate is often produced by clear-cutting rainforest land, applying chemical pesticides and through the use of child labor in hazardous conditions. However, a number of companies now offer organic, sustainably-grown and "fair trade" varieties that adhere to environmentally and socially responsible production and processing standards. Pictured here: some offerings from Endangered Species Chocolate, Dagoba and others.
© Jason Kremkau

Some cacao farmers have enlisted the help of scientists and environmental groups to find ways to produce chocolate more fairly and more sustainably. The nonprofit Rainforest Alliance, which works on similar issues with coffee growers, is now partnering with cacao growers in Ecuador to develop environmentally and socially responsible cacao production and processing standards. The standards seek to maintain critical conservation areas, reduce pressures to convert more forestland to cacao plantations, and provide social and economic benefits to local communities. As a result, some 2,000 cacao growers in five Ecuadorian communities have now formed cooperatives that help find new markets for their products while overseeing adherence to fair labor standards and environmental protection measures. Rainforest Alliance hopes to expand the program to other cacao growing regions of the world in the coming years.

Those looking to get their hands on some organically grown fair trade chocolate have more options than ever before. Leading brands include Dagoba, Endangered Species Chocolate, Equal Exchange, Green & Black"s, Sjaak’s, Sunspire, Terra Nostra Divine, Theo, Sweet Earth, and Yachana Gourmet. Actor Paul Newman has gotten in on the act, too, with his Newman"s Own brand. Like Newman"s Own, many of the companies donate money to environmental and other nonprofit efforts. Whole Foods and other natural foods retailers stock many of these brands, which are also available via various Internet-based retailers including Global Exchange"s Fair Trade Online Store.

CONTACTS: International Institute of Tropical Agriculture; Global Exchange"s Fair Trade Online Store


Dear EarthTalk: What"s a "land trust" and how does it help the environment?

—Sam Stout, Darien, CT

More than 1,600 land trusts have sprung up across the U.S since the middle of the last century, protecting over 37 million acres of land from development and other threats while providing open space for public recreation and safeguarding critical wildlife habitat.
© Getty Images

A land trust is an organization that works with landowners to conserve their land, either by buying it from them or obtaining it as a donation. Legal agreements between the trust, the landowner and the local government are then created in order to permanently limit development of the land. Land trusts are usually nonprofit, and their purpose is to provide long-term stewardship of not just land, but sometimes areas of historical or archeological significance.

The need for land trusts arose out of public concern for the loss of open space, wildlife habitat and scenic beauty in the face of rampant development on private land during the latter half of the 20th century. More than 1,600 land trusts have since sprung up in a variety of communities across the U.S. Together they have protected some 37 million acres of land, according to the Land Trust Alliance, a Washington, DC-based umbrella group formed in 1981 to help land trusts share information and work more effectively.

When a land trust acquires land, it may retain ownership in perpetuity in order to protect the parcel from development. When landowners donate parcels to a land trust outright, they can take advantage of state and federal income tax deductions—similar to any tax-deductible, non-profit donation—while saving considerable money on property and estate taxes moving forward.

Whether a land trust buys a parcel or gets it donated, it can either hold onto the property or, depending on the arrangement with the former owner, sell it to a third party—often a local or state government that commits to turning it into a protected area. Land trusts also sell land to private buyers, usually with strict restrictions on future development. The benefit to keeping the land under private ownership is that it can then stay on local property tax rolls and thus continue to provide revenue for the local government.

Another way land trusts work is through "conservation easements," whereby individuals can protect their land but still retain ownership and the option of selling or passing it along to heirs. Future owners of the land are also bound by the easement"s terms, which restrict development and use and are often monitored by a land trust. Conservation easements usually lower the financial value of their land (by limiting development potential), but landowners benefit because their property taxes go down accordingly. Likewise, if and when heirs inherit the land, the conservation easement lessens their estate tax burden.

Every conservation easement is different, but most include provisions limiting or forbidding construction or resource extraction. Often they protect especially sensitive lands such as wetlands. Some easements allow specific parcels to be used for agriculture, ranching or logging. Many allow hiking, camping, bird watching or even hunting (though some specifically ban hunting and are created for that purpose).

Another nonprofit group, the American Land Conservancy (ALC), functions like a national land trust working nationwide to ensure that large or exceptional pieces of property stay out of the hands of developers. Some of ALC"s work has led to the creation or expansion of national parks in Colorado, Hawaii and elsewhere.

CONTACTS: Land Trust Alliance; American Land Conservancy