Chocolate’s Dark Side

What do coffee and chocolate have in common besides caffeine, some reputed health benefits and a desirable flavor? They are both popular in developed countries but grown largely in the developing world. Both are derived from what are known as beans, and both are traditionally grown in the shady understory of tropical rainforests, sharing their homes with a plethora of wildlife, from howler monkeys to parrots. Cocoa beans are produced by the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) and can only be grown 20 degrees from the equator (see "Enlightened Indulgence," Eating Right, July/August 2001).

© Jason Kremkau

The history of cocoa bean harvesting has been dark. About 70 percent of the world’s crop is grown in West Africa, where, according to Rainforest Alliance’s Chris Wille, "Really bad things have happened that now haunt the entire industry." In 2001, the U.S. State Department documented child slavery on Ivory Coast cocoa farms. Although the practice was never common and may have been overblown in some media accounts, "Other egregious forms of child labor are unfortunately widespread," reports Global Exchange. Today, hundreds of thousands of children continue to work in African cocoa farms, often doing dangerous jobs and lacking access to education. Although chocolate is highly profitable for major food companies, the average West African may only take home $30 to $108 per year from the market.

And there are other parallels with coffee: As demand rose for chocolate, farmers began replacing native shade-grown cocoa with a high-yield, low-quality hybrid that can be grown in open fields with the help of industrial chemicals. According to Rainforest Alliance, the switch has led to increased erosion and run-off, deforestation and reduction of wildlife habitat.

In response to these unsustainable practices, many cooperatives and coalitions have sprung up. Since 1997, Rainforest Alliance has been working with partners such as Conservacion y Desarrollo through its Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) to restore sustainable cocoa farming practices in Ecuador. SAN works to help communities employ traditional methods of farming and organizes cooperatives to share processing facilities. The sustainable cocoa program includes standards for worker treatment and conservation of wildlife, water and soil.

Fair Trade and organic certified chocolates are also now increasingly available from a number of companies, ensuring that rigorous standards are met in terms of social and environmental responsibility. Producers include Newman’s Own, Dagoba, Equal Exchange, Ithaca Fine Chocolates and Yachana Gourmet.