How Does Organic Cacao Farming Help the Environment?

Kelsie Evans
February 12, 2014
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Cacao, the fruit from which the main ingredient in chocolate is derived, grows in beautiful, tropical conditions along the equator. The cacao tree naturally prefers the shade, especially when young, and can grow in harmony with and in support of the local ecosystem when thoughtfully cultivated by small-scale family farmers using organic production methods. 

Planting cacao among other trees, such as fruit trees, provides many benefits: shade for the cacao tree, increased biodiversity on the farm, inhibited growth of weeds (reducing the need for chemical herbicides), and additional food and income for the farmer’s family. While there is a history of low chemical use on cacao farms simply because farmers couldn’t afford them, cacao-growing co-ops are transitioning to a more deliberate approach to organic farming, investing resources in trainings and programs to ensure strong yields while preserving the local environment.

In the past, low chemical inputs were coupled with poor farm maintenance and low productivity, which could increase the need for expansion into the surrounding forested areas when yields declined. Improving farm maintenance means expansion can happen in a more environmentally friendly way, and improves yields of the existing trees. 

At CONACADO, a co-op of 10,000 farmers in the Dominican Republic, Equal Exchange supports an initiative of creating model farms, where farmers come for training on effective organic farming methods and maintenance. Their holistic approach to farm maintenance also includes teaching farmers how to make their own organic compost on the farm using discarded cacao pods. 

CONACADO and our other farmer partners in Peru, Ecuador and Panama also have nurseries filled with cacao seedlings so that farmers are able to replace old trees, rather than cut down surrounding forests to expand their farms. The co-ops focus on incorporating other crops when planting these new cacao trees, improving overall farm diversification. These include a variety of crops for both shade and food, such as bananas, citrus, and tubers and roots. 

Managing the inputs and outputs of the land plays an important role in preserving the environment. The farmers who belong to our co-op partners do not use man-made chemical pesticides and herbicides, which would normally go into the local environment and water supply. Using discarded cacao pods to make compost also prevents a potential waste byproduct from ending up in the local water system. 

At COCABO Co-op in Panama, the co-op plays a special role in protecting the environment. Located on the edge of the Amistad Forest Reserve, the co-op’s practice of agroforestry and farming within the rainforest provides a critical buffer of protection to the reserve. While the environmental benefit is high, the downside for the farmers is that planting within the limitations of the rainforest means fewer cacao trees and lower yield per hectare. 

Organic farming is not easy. It’s hard work, but your support of Equal Exchange chocolate and cocoa makes these investments in organic farming worthwhile.