As a commodity of almost irresistible attraction, chocolate has always played contradictory roles in human life. For those consuming it, chocolate has been an exquisite experience. For those growing the cacao from which it’s made, it’s more often been excruciating. For those of us savouring its flavour, it’s the ultimate indulgence. For those struggling to survive on the pittance paid for cacao beans, it has been the ultimate indignity. Many of those who grow cacao have never even tasted chocolate.
As currently processed, chocolate is candy, not food. But chocolate has been cultivated for 4,000 years, and for all but the last hundred and fifty it was a food and a medicine, not a confection. Some hint of its nutritional value has been revealed by recent research indicating that dark chocolate is rich in antioxidants, flavinoids, epicatechin and other ingredients that shield against heart attacks and stroke, cancer and diabetes. But most chocolate consumed today is essentially a highly fattening mix of sugar and milk with an overlay of chocolate flavouring made from inferior beans.
Yet chocolate need not be bad for us or a bad deal for the cacao grower. In fact, if properly grown, processed, and marketed, it could become a transformational source of food and nutrition, revived culture and agriculture, biodiversity, and personal and social health.
But to become truly transformational, chocolate itself needs to change. We must change the way we grow and process cacao. Seventy percent of the beans grown today comes from West Africa, where it is cultivated as a monoculture from few strains in minimal shade. But cacao is a native of the splendidly diverse original rainforests of Central and South America. There it grows in the wild among hundreds of species of trees and plants, many of which possess largely unexplored nutritional or medicinal values of their own.
In Brazil, cabruca, a unique method of cacao cultivation that dates back 250 years, leaves the original rainforest largely intact. Cabruca holds the potential to provide cacao farmers with a partial economic basis for preserving the remaining rainforests of the vast Mata Atlantica – and beyond them to tropical forests worldwide where cacao is also grown.
In a highly diverse ecosystem, with both its naturally occurring and humanly managed elements, is adaptable to changing conditions in ways industrial agriculture is disastrously proving not to be. Cacao itself has been struck in recent years by scourges like witches’ broom and moniliasis that have reduced yields in the Americas by as much as 90 percent. So while it is valuable, it can’t be relied on to provide the sole support for a rainforest economy. The natural diversity of an original rainforest offers a broader range of commodities on which to base a sustainable economics.
A more biodiverse approach to cacao cultivation could provide a powerful economic incentive to preserve and replant the rainforests that once carpeted the tropics. If done on a large enough scale, replanting rainforests and managing them as long-cycle ecosystems could also help stabilize the climate worldwide since they absorb excess carbon dioxide produced by industrial activity.
At the same time, cacao farmers need and deserve a greater share of the fruits of their labour. Today, they are only able to sell their beans raw and receive a tiny fraction of the price charged to consumers. The lion’s share of revenues go to the middlemen, distributors and processors that are some of the largest corporations on earth. Yet it is perfectly practical and not hugely expensive to process cacao on-site in the regions where it is grown. As a group, most cacao farmers make a marginal living and don’t possess the resources to build their own processing facilities. To do so, they would need help from a low-interest loan program, perhaps run by an international agency promoting climate mitigation measures and financed by carbon credits earned through reforestation programs.
Well-intentioned proposals to reforest the tropics, improve livelihoods and reduce the heedless exploitation of natural resources have long foundered on a lack of hard-nosed economic incentives. Grown in the long cycles of agroforestry, locally processed for added value, and bolstered by a diverse range of rainforest foods and medicines, cacao offers the possibility of just such a sound economic base. But it would also challenge a well-entrenched set of private and public interests that profit from a semi-colonial system of resource extraction common to many commodities. Since that system will not soon be supplanted, success will depend on whether the two approaches can find ways to coexist, like the rainforest flora themselves, in healthy competition and cooperation with one another.