How the Chocolate You Eat May Be Destroying the Rainforest

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The world’s hunger for chocolate may devastate rainforests in the Amazon River Basin, a tropical area known for harboring millions of tons of carbon within its diverse flora and huge trees. In recent years, cacao growers have begun deforesting huge tracts of land to plant cacao trees — but no one has been able to measure their effect on global warming until now. Environmental advocates worry this heavy push for chocolate could exacerbate already increasing carbon emissions.

Explosive Growth

Traditionally, cacao trees grew only in Western African nations such as the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon, but harvesters have also turned to South America. They’ve been utilizing Brazil’s massive land areas for years to grow cacao trees, and now, an alarming trend has started in Peru. From 1990 to 2013, Peru’s cacao production almost quintupled. In 2012, the world’s hunger for chocolate led to United Cacao’s destruction of almost 5,000 acres of remote rainforest in Peru. Surprisingly, no one on the ground detected what happened — but NASA scientists gleaned what occurred from satellite imagery.

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Photo by Everjean via Flickr

Collecting Data

Cacao-growing companies must mitigate global warming; however, these companies need data to proceed. So several technological innovations came together to offer environmental advocates, governments and large companies a way to improve the environment while maintaining the industry.

Using satellite images, they were able to see precisely how much forest was eliminated for the Peruvian cacao plantation. Then, advanced lidar technology – specialized lasers that analyze reflected light – was used to estimate that the original patch of forest harbored 54.4 tons of carbon per acre. That works out to 272,000 tons of carbon over 5,000 acres. However, the cacao trees withhold about 18 tons of carbon over the same acreage (or 90,000 tons cumulatively). The difference traps an extra 182,000 tons of carbon within the atmosphere — about two-thirds more carbon in the atmosphere than native trees. Terrifyingly, over its lifetime, the plantation’s net carbon emissions will top 660,000 tons.

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Photo by Sophia Fernandez via Flickr

Reasons for New Plantations

Companies start new plantations for many reasons. Older trees begin having less yield and must be replaced. So instead of growing new trees on existing plantations or on ground already cleared, companies simply move on to other areas. Firms do this in South American rainforests as well as African jungles.

Another reason may hinge on how cacao trees make cacao beans. Peter’s Chocolate, a subsidiary of Cargill, notes that 400 cacao beans go into 1 pound of chocolate. And while one large tree produces between 50,000 to 100,000 blossoms in a year, just 1 flower in 500 bears fruit.

In addition, people cannot climb these massive trees because of their fragile root systems, and wild animals like parrots, monkeys and squirrels love to eat the succulent beans. Cultivators constantly struggle to harvest cacao beans over the 25 to 40 years of a tree’s life. It takes a lot of time, energy and effort to feed the demand of chocolate lovers.

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Photo by Siona Karen via Flickr

Advocates Take Charge

There are ways to help. Organizations such as the Sustainable Agriculture Network and Peru’s Tambopata Candamo have helped set sustainability standards. Tambopata Candamo has made deals with local farmers to grow new trees on land already deforested, rather than moving on to new land. And Fairtrade and Global Forest Watch have also begun monitoring cacao planting activity. All of these groups have attempted to partner with chocolate-producing companies to mitigate forest losses, looking to decrease deforestation and find practical solutions for companies trying to expand their profits.

Growers can also encourage other trees to grown alongside cacao trees to help with these issues. Crops such as bananas, coconuts and other fruits offer more moneymaking opportunities for large agricultural operations. And it simply makes sense – and dollars – to preserve the forest as much as possible.Individuals can take action on this issue just as much as organizations. Purchase chocolate from producers that utilize sustainable practices. Look for Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance Certified labels on products. Consumers could even take it to the extreme by boycotting the chocolate industry altogether and finding alternatives to these sweet snacks. You can help!

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