Chocolate lovers for the environment

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Cacao plant and beans.

This story was originally reported by PRI's "The World." For more, listen to the audio above.

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Mexican farmers have grown cacao, the plant that chocolate is made from, for centuries. It's typically grown on wooded farms with fruit trees providing shade for the cacao, which ends up creating an ecologically important habitat for wildlife and other environmental benefits.

Lately, however, farmers have been clearing their cacao farms to make way for more profitable crops like sugarcane or oil palm. Some farmers fear that cacao farms may soon disappear entirely.

Conservationists are determined not to let that happen. Edward Millard, who oversees sustainable landscapes for the Rainforest Alliance, is helping farmers get value out of traditional cacao farming techniques, which he believes are important for biodiversity.

The Rainforest Alliance has started certifying sustainably grown cacao, much as they’ve also done with coffee, to create a market for environmentally responsible chocolate. Millard told PRI's "The World:"

Little by little this will build the same sort of awareness and consumer response in the chocolate industry, I think, as we’ve seen in coffee and so we can expect certified chocolate also to start claiming more and more of the consumer’s purchasing power.

The state of Chiapas, Mexico, has also been working with cacao farmers to help them improve their growing techniques and become move toward more economic and environmental sustainability. And the cacao industry shows some signs of turning around, in part due to rising prices. Carlos Victoria, who oversees cacao for the state, says that cacao alone can now bring about $1,600.00 hectare, and adding more fruits to the farm can bring in more. The rising price may make cacao farming competitive with palm oil and sugarcane.

Victoria points to a newly planted cacao farm as a hopeful sign that the market may be turning toward more cacao plants in the area. And that may benefit both chocolate lovers and the environment at the same time.

PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."