Trees felled for a cocoa plantation inside the Scio Forest Reserve in western Ivory Coast.

Trees felled for a cocoa plantation inside the Scio Forest Reserve in western Ivory Coast. Mighty Earth

The Real Price of a Chocolate Bar: West Africa’s Rainforests

Ivory Coast has lost more than 80 percent of its forests in the last 50 years, mainly to cocoa production. The government has a plan to turn over management of former forest to international chocolate manufacturers: Is it a conservation strategy or a land grab?

How can you save the last rainforests from rampant deforestation in one of Africa’s most biodiverse countries? A crackdown on those responsible — in this case, chocolate growers and traders? In the Ivory Coast, the government thinks differently. It is unveiling a plan instead to remove protection from most of its remaining forests and hand them over to the world’s chocolate traders. Is this madness, a brutal land grab, or the only way out?

In the past half-century, few countries have lost rainforests as fast as the Ivory Coast. More than 80 percent of its forests are gone, most following an illegal invasion by as many as a million landless people into national parks and other supposedly protected forests. The Marahoue National Park alone has 30,000 illegal inhabitants. The invaders are growing cocoa to supply the global chocolate business.

The Ivory Coast, a West African country the size of New Mexico, produces more than a third of the world’s cocoa. The crop contributes around a tenth of the nation’s GDP. But around 40 percent of the country’s cocoa crop — more than a tenth of the world’s chocolate bars — is grown illegally in the country’s national parks and 230 supposedly protected government-owned forests, known as forêts classée, says Etelle Higonnet of Mighty Earth, a United States-based environmental group active in cataloging the footprint of key global commodities.

A new government plan will legalize large-scale deforestation and apparently reward perpetrators of the forests’ destruction.

Most cocoa is grown in monocultures of what is known as the full-sun system, requiring the removal of all surrounding trees. Meeting the world’s insatiable demand for the beans that make chocolate has resulted in many protected areas being “completely converted to farms,” according to Eloi Anderson Bitty of the University Felix Houphouet-Boigny in Abidjan.

Wildlife, especially forest elephants and chimpanzees, have suffered badly. The forests form part of the West African Guinea Forests, famous for its primates. But Bitty found that 13 of the 23 protected forests he surveyed no longer had any primates.

Pressure has been growing on the government to act. Yet, rather than redoubling its efforts to keep cocoa growers out of its protected forests, the government plans to remove the largely ineffectual legal protection from thousands of square miles of wrecked rainforests and convert them into agro-forestry reserves, to be run by international chocolate manufacturers. The stated aim is to protect other forests by improving cocoa productivity in already deforested areas. But the plan will at a stroke legalize large-scale deforestation and it appears to be rewarding the perpetrators of the forests’ destruction.

The initiative was approved by ministers in the Ivory Coast earlier this month. It is expected to be approved by the country’s Parliament in April, according to the World Cocoa Foundation, a trade organization that has helped mastermind the plan.

The loss of forest in Ivory Coast from 1990 to 2015. Mighty Earth

Land-rights campaigners say the expected changes will give the likes of Mars, Nestle, and Hershey’s control over many cocoa-growing communities in the forests, by wielding powerful influence over their only economic activity and likely giving the companies monopoly rights to buy the farmers’ crops.

Most of the cocoa in the Ivory Coast is grown by small farmers, typically on plots of 7 to 10 acres. Many farmers are migrants who sought refuge in the forests during droughts to the north in Mali and Burkina Faso in the 1970s and 1980s, and during the Ivory Coast’s civil war from 2002 to 2004.

The farmers are caught in an exploitative and corrupt system of cocoa trading and land appropriation, and most earn less than a dollar a day, says Higonnet. Meanwhile, she alleges that the government agencies charged with protecting the forests are more interested in collecting bribes than safeguarding woodlands. A senior advisor in the office of Ivory Coast’s President did not respond to Yale Environment 360’s questions about corruption and bribery in the forest protection services, or to claims that the government had not consulted communities about changing the status of the forests they live in.

This mire of illegality supplies a highly centralized global cocoa trade. A dozen companies buy 85 percent of the cocoa harvest, two-thirds of which comes from just two countries: the Ivory Coast and neighboring Ghana, says Richard Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation. “Very few international companies directly source from protected areas,” says Scobey. But they buy from middlemen who do.

As environmentalists have highlighted the deforestation, cocoa companies have scrambled to respond.

As environmentalists have highlighted the scale of deforestation to make the world’s chocolate in recent years, cocoa companies have scrambled to respond. At the United Nations Climate Change Conference in late 2017, leading companies publicly signed a “joint framework for action,” committing them to work with governments to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. Thirty-two companies have now signed up, says Scobey.

Ghana, the Ivory Coast, and other governments of producer countries also signed the framework, which promises to “prohibit and prevent” further deforestation, “respect the rights of cocoa farmers,” and “strengthen supply chain mapping, with the end goal of full traceability at the farm level.” The Ivory Coast’s minister for water and forests, Alain-Richard Donwahi, has committed to returning at least a fifth of the country to forest by 2030, by restoring the minority of currently protected forests that are not handed over to the cocoa traders.

But 15 months on, deforestation has not stopped, says Higonnet, who recently toured the region. The promised reforms are behind schedule. “Farmers who engage in deforestation for cocoa are still able to openly sell their cocoa without repercussions,” she said in a November report.

Scobey says companies are going as fast as they can. But there are constraints. None of the companies want to break with the existing system of smallholder farming and take on the responsibility of developing their own large-scale plantations. Equally, governments don’t have the resources to secure their forests and relocate the hundreds of thousands of people illegally occupying them.

Workers cut cocoa in the Ivory Coast village of Godilehiri. Most of the country's cocoa is grown by small farmers, on plots of 7 to 10 acres.

Workers cut cocoa in the Ivory Coast village of Godilehiri. Most of the country's cocoa is grown by small farmers, on plots of 7 to 10 acres. ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images

The solution, he says, is “public-private partnerships.” International companies that buy the cocoa are offering to manage the degraded forest reserves provided the government legalizes cocoa production in them.

To this end, the Ivory Coast government has promised to zone the protected forests, which cover more than 7,700 square miles, into three categories. Still-forested areas and all national parks will be fully protected and all inhabitants moved out. A middle category of forest will be gradually restored. The more heavily degraded areas — which make up the vast majority of once-forested land — will be reclassified from protected forêts classée to Sustainable Management Agroforestry Concessions.

The changes are being enacted under a new forest code, which was approved by ministers earlier this month. The government will then issue operational guidelines to “spell out what companies can do” in their territories, says Scobey.

Nobody knows how the final rules will look, but the government says the agroforestry concessions will allow “environmentally friendly” agricultural activities, such as “shaded agriculture,” as well as grazing, mining, and ecotourism. Shaded agriculture involves growing cocoa trees that can prosper inside a forest canopy, a technique already favored in Cameroon, for instance. But there could be pressure instead to focus corporate investment on intensifying existing full-sun farming.

A park ranger stands over illegally harvested cocoa, found during a routine patrol of the Cavally Classified Forest in Ivory Coast.

A park ranger stands over illegally harvested cocoa, found during a routine patrol of the Cavally Classified Forest in Ivory Coast. Mighty Earth

Some researchers point to the often pitifully low yields of many small cocoa farms, which help keep farmers in extreme poverty. One study found that the worst 25 percent of them had yields only a quarter of those of the best, with much of the difference often caused by pests and diseases.

In any event, Scobey says the cocoa industry expects most farmers in heavily degraded areas “will stay there and participate in agroforestry,” and that cocoa buyers will develop partnerships with local communities.

But outside the agroforestry zones, the plan is for mass expulsions to protect remaining forests. Industry leaders recognize that expelling cocoa farmers from protected forests without offering them alternative livelihoods is pointless. Most will simply return. A working group is expected to advise the government on acceptable international practices on resettlement, says Scobey, adding, “We are talking to the World Bank and others about finance.”

But Higonnet and groups like Human Rights Watch have documented numerous examples of brutal government evictions of communities from the national parks of the Ivory Coast. Often, she says, people are thrown out of their homes without notice, explanation, or anywhere else to go.

“These crackdowns usually happen after people complain about the bribes they are forced to pay to farm in the parks,” she says. “It has nothing to do with protecting forests.” She fears the pattern will be repeated, whatever the rules the industry or government approve.

One conservationist contends delaying tactics are taking place because many people are profiting from the present chaos.

“It’s a complicated dance,” said Scobey. It is also behind schedule. The corporate plans depend on the government producing maps of its protected areas and data on how much forest they contain, as well as who is living there. A December 2018 deadline for completing that passed without result. Likewise, no company action plans, due by the same date, have been published.

Higonnet contends that delaying tactics are taking place because too many people are profiting from the present chaos. But she is cautiously backing the initiative, saying that public-private partnerships will make companies more accountable for how their product is grown. Unlike national governments, she says, “at least Nestle is vulnerable. They won’t want to be on the front of the New York Times.”

It’s not just publicity that companies may fear. Last month, ministers in Germany, Europe’s largest chocolate consumer, called for the European Union to establish “binding regulations” on the sustainable production of cocoa sold into Europe, covering everything from deforestation to child labor.

But other conservation groups, including those in the Ivory Coast itself, are more cautious about embracing a corporate takeover. Youssouf Doumbia, president of the Ivorian Observatory for the Sustainable Management of Natural Resources, a civil society organization consulted on the proposals, says: “There is a great risk that the private sector industrial actors put their economic interests above the restoration of forest cover.”

Residents in the village of Cantondougou, in western Ivory Coast, produce several tons of cocoa beans every year. The cocoa industry is one of the few sources of jobs in the region.

Residents in the village of Cantondougou, in western Ivory Coast, produce several tons of cocoa beans every year. The cocoa industry is one of the few sources of jobs in the region. KAMBOU SIA/AFP/Getty Images

At a meeting this month, civil society organizations complained that communities were not being consulted about which protected forests should be turned over to agroforestry. While there is no published list, the groups fear that forêts classée that still contain substantial biodiversity are being scheduled for conversion.

Doumbia wants the protected areas to be handed over instead to their occupants as “community agro-forests,” run by farming cooperatives. Otherwise he fears a land grab that will make chocolate companies de facto administrators of cocoa-growing territories in which tens of thousands of people live and work.

Fears will intensify if the current system for marketing cocoa changes. At present, farmers mostly sell to independent traders, who in turn sell to the multinational companies. But most observers believe that when the companies begin investing in improving productivity in the agroforestry zones, they will expect, in return, monopoly rights to buy the cocoa in their areas.

Scobey did not confirm this, but said: “We say that if we want companies to invest in these areas, there has to be an economic incentive for them. That’ll be important.”

Higonnet says the idea that farmers have much choice about whom they sell to at present is an illusion. The trader middlemen are “abusive” and pay farmers a pittance. Selling to a monopoly corporation with a reputation to defend internationally could hardly be worse.

But this, she says, is not just about the Ivory Coast or the cocoa business. Removing a protected designation from forests, even those heavily degraded by farmers, “is a dangerous precedent. Other nations such as Indonesia could decide to simply lower the protections on their forests. I can imagine [President Jair] Bolsonaro in Brazil also having a field day [delisting] protected areas.”

Fred Pearce sits on the board of Fern, a Brussels-based organization that defends the rights of forest communities and is working with groups representing small-scale cocoa growers in the Ivory Coast.