The scuffle highlights the dark side of a food that, like love, can be bitter or sweet. In addition to labor issues, chocolate plantations can be responsible for deforestation, when growers raze rainforest to plant more cocoa trees.
But chocolate production can also be empowering to farmers and relatively healthy for the environment. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit some cocoa producers in Brazil that demonstrate the potential of chocolate to create positive change.
Like coffee, chocolate trees can be grown beneath the forest canopy instead of replacing it. In the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil this cultivation strategy is called cabruca. Also sometimes called "chocolate rainforests," cabrucas are composed of shade-tolerant cacao trees grown under a forest canopy. Leaf litter is allowed to build up on the forest floor, and a diverse ecosystem of plants and insects develops. Cabrucas can include other cash crops like rubber trees, cassava, and banana, papaya, and various fruit trees.
The cabrucas I visited are a far cry from the monoculture-style chocolate plantations that dominate the chocolate industry. Many such plantations have failed in recent years thanks to nutrient depletion and the spread of a plant disease called Witch's Broom. The cabrucas have shown dramatically more resistance to these problems. One grower I visited, a Swiss expat named Ernst Goetsch, has made good business of buying depleted and abandoned chocolate monoculture plantations and converting them into vibrant cabrucas. He's managed to employ a lot of local people and restore value to previously worthless land, while producing a lot of chocolate.
In addition to the environmental benefits, the cabruca system offers a solution to the labor problems often associated with chocolate. The cacao plant is extremely responsive to tender loving care like pruning, mulching, and amendments with compost. On a small scale, given lots of love, cocoa yields can more than double. This makes it a viable cash crop for small landholders, especially when you consider the other valuables grown alongside the chocolate plants.
There's a Brazilian agricultural cooperative called Cabruca that helps sustainable, fair trade chocolate growers, large and small, grow their crop and market their beans to companies like Valrhona, in France, or the Swiss chocolatier Laederach. Be prepared to pay more for the conscience-soothing options -- and expect a better-tasting product. The Cabruca cooperative also sells wine made from the fruit of the cacao plant (chocolate is made from the seeds).
While the term cabruca is used only in Brazil, the concept of rainforest-friendly chocolate has taken root to some degree wherever chocolate is grown, even in West Africa. As part of Hershey's new commitment to fair-trade and sustainably grown chocolate, the company's Bliss and Dagoba lines will soon be sourced exclusively from Rainforest Alliance-certified operations. The change is due in part to pressure from groups like the International Labor Rights Forum, and in part to chase profit; artisanal chocolate is one of the fastest growing slices of the food business.