The Dark Secret of Valentine's Day Chocolate | Opinion

Since 1868, a heart-shaped box of chocolates has served as the pinnacle of the commercialization of Valentine's Day. In the U.S. alone, confectionery sales leading up to Feb. 14 are expected to top $3.4 billion and the Omicron variant has led to a sharp spike in the price of cocoa, chocolate's primary ingredient.

One might assume this would be good news for cocoa farmers from West Africa, the origin of 70 percent of 5 million tons of chocolate produced every year. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Instead of collecting the profits, African farmers are faced with a survival crisis triggered by multinationals' greed and increasingly volatile cocoa prices.

What we are witnessing in Africa are unprecedented levels of deforestation and poverty fueled by the cocoa industry—which ironically was meant to be the sweet escape from hardship for the same farmers the sector is now shamelessly exploiting.

In recent years, the Cocoa and Forest Initiative (CFI) has pushed for ending cocoa related deforestation. In both Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the biggest cocoa producers in West Africa, deforestation has been rapidly accelerating. A part of the issue is that much of cocoa is sourced indirectly—meaning the cocoa is bought through local traders who often operate informally with limited public oversight.

Western Africa was largely deforested throughout the 20th century due to agricultural expansion and international trade of goods including cocoa. Only in recent decades, with the increasing availability of satellite technology, have we been able to scrutinize the disappearance of remaining forests which has led to more frequent storms and increased risk of deadly floods.

Many cocoa trees planted in Ghana and the Ivory Coast since the 1990s are losing their productivity much sooner than predicted, partly because cocoa flourishes in shade instead of direct sunlight. As farmers are desperate for more income, they increase their farmland in a bid to sell more cocoa.

The legacy of colonialism has created the chocolate industry, worth $130 billion, while most cocoa farmers earn less than $1 per day. Farmers' share in the cocoa supply chain accounts for only 6.6 percent of the value of the final sale from a ton of sold cocoa, while manufacturers (35.2 percent) and retailers (44.2 percent) are taking the biggest cuts.

The injustice within the industry reflects a much larger issue of the challenges countries in the Global South face when attempting to lift themselves out of poverty and being unable to extract higher prices for raw materials or control the valuable areas of the supply chain.

Three companies control 60 percent of the global cocoa trade. And instead of using this hegemony to enhance sustainability and egalitarianism in the industry, these corporations are blatantly circumventing cocoa pricing agreements designed to protect local farmers.

Deforestation in cocoa producing countries is largely driven by poverty. The crop is almost entirely grown by smallholder farmers who often lack support for adopting more sustainable farming methods such as planting shade trees around the cocoa-growing trees to establish better growing conditions.

Increasing cocoa prices have driven farmers from traditionally non-producing countries to enter the cocoa business but with consideration of deforestation as an outcome. The Batooro in southwestern Uganda are using the indigenous cultural ficus natalensis or barkcloth tree, to shade the cocoa, which they previously used to shade coffee.

Close-up view of heart-shaped candies
Close-up view of heart-shaped chocolate candies. Chuck Fishman/Getty Images

We should not treat the cocoa industry as an isolated example. In fact, the production of many forest risk commodities is deeply interlinked. Palm oil—native to West Africa—is used in chocolate to create a smooth and shiny appearance and to keep it from melting. Smallholders make up a significant portion of the farmers in the cocoa production in West Africa and in palm oil production in Southeast Asia.

In both cases, smallholders require increased support in shifting to sustainable farming practices that curb deforestation compared to larger suppliers and producers.

In Malaysia, the government-backed Malaysian Sustainable Palm Oil certification scheme has been designed to support smallholders to obtain certification. Since then, Malaysia has witnessed reduced deforestation rates for four consecutive years with around 93 percent of palm oil produced being certified sustainable.

If local sustainability initiatives in industries like cocoa and palm oil are not being incentivized by Western nations, there's a danger that these sectors become "poverty traps," in which local farmers simply cannot afford to invest in sustainable farming methods. It is crucial that the richest nations deliver financial support to enforce stricter environmental laws in these industries instead of simply blaming them for violations—which, ironically, are driven by Western demand for goods.

To break the neo-colonial trading patterns and control the distribution of wealth, African countries may soon have no choice but to move away from exporting raw cocoa. This could mean making the final products at home—which is more resource intensive but may appeal to more conscious consumers who respond to stories of supply chains creating decently paid jobs.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), world leaders pledged to end deforestation by 2030. That said, there was a reason why even Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed the pledge: It is not legally binding and allows for another decade of destruction of Brazilian forests. Again, actions speak louder than words.

In the past, the global progress on slowing deforestation has been shockingly inadequate and there is a real danger the COP26 deforestation pledge may have the same faith. Additionally, research demonstrated how consumer behavior in the world's richest countries is responsible for the loss of almost four trees per person annually, threatening the survival of forests in tropical regions.

In light of this evidence, Western nations must urgently acknowledge their complicity in the environmental destruction and human rights violations on African soil and support the implementation of the crucial procedures for supply chain tracking and tracing.

During the past decades, multinational corporations have become a force in shaping the global intertwined system of people and the planet—and the cocoa trade is no exception. As consumers, we hold the power to demand change for the better: a more just and equal global system that puts farmers in the Global South at the forefront.

Or else, chocolate will soon leave a bittersweet taste in the mouths of Western consumers.

Camilla Barungi is the managing director of Tooro Omutoma Project, the editor-in-chief of Jaro4ME and a regular speaker at U.N. summits.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.