The holiday season is chock-full of scenes of celebration with latkes and lights, cookies and carols, collard greens and communion; a lot 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 protected areas 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 Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. These nations ranked #1 and #3 for the highest rates of deforestation in all of Africa for much of the last two decades. They’re winning the Africa cup of deforestation. Côte d’Ivoire has lost over 85% 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, and most major companies responded.
In November 2017, 22 major players in the chocolate sector like Lindt and Hershey’s joined the Ghanaian and Ivorian governments to commit to ‘No New Deforestation’ for cocoa in West Africa. Since then, even more companies have signed on, many of them committing to deforestation-free cocoa worldwide. Supermarkets have engaged as well. Recently, Cameroon and Liberia announced that they too plan to switch over to national Frameworks for forest-friendly cocoa. And in the EU, Parliamentarians have started to debate an EU cocoa law, which France and Belgium recently and publicly announced support.
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 some companies and local authorities have taken actions to limit deforestation, we documented that farmers who engaged in deforestation 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 heartland alone, deforestation in 2018 so far is equivalent to 15,000 football fields of forest. The numbers were not much better than previous years – 21,000 football fields lost 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 implementation. They must expedite serious joint monitoring alongside civil society efforts, and do so before the next deforestation “danger season.” That season starts in January.
However, in the rest of the world, including Sierra Leone and Nigeria, it’s open season on forests and wildlife for the chocolate industry.
There is urgent need to save the forest homes of pygmy hippos in Sierra Leone, gorillas in Nigeria, chimpanzees in Guinea, 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,” agro forestry cocoa.It’s up to us to hold the industry accountable this holiday season. Almost two million people have already acted. Chocolate lovers one and all can help shift the industry from naughty to nice by simply insisting that any holiday chocolate they purchase is “Deforestation-free.” The message will resonate, that a truly Happy Christmas is one filled with forest-friendly chocolate that can help protect gorillas and other vulnerable species from extinction.