Planet Cacao

Our universal love affair with chocolate has survived the passing of time and transcended vast distances. Join Silvija Davidson on a journey of discovery to find out where cacao is cultivated, how and by whom.

How apt that the cacao tree with its magical fruit should have its origins and natural habitat, in the lush Amazonian rainforest, filled with vividly coloured birds and butterflies. It thrives in dense, almost impenetrable jungle, its slender trunk and clusters of pink and white blossom shaded by much taller trees. Delicate and demanding, it grows best in constant heat, humidity and shade from wind and sun. Despite growing global demand for chocolate, cacao has not been successfully cultivated beyond 20° North or South of the Equator, and almost all is grown today on small family farms. 

Out of the Amazon

The Maya and the Aztecs were the first to cultivate cacao, in the dense forests of what is now Mexico. The beans they prized most came from a variety known as ‘Criollo’ [meaning native] that are pale pink inside their pods and yield delicate flavours with little bitterness. When Spanish explorers reached the Upper Amazon they discovered other types of wild cocoa including what is today known as ‘Forastero’ [meaning foreigner]. These are generally hardier plants, and higher yielding, but with more robust and bitter flavours. It is the latter that has adapted most successfully to transplanting globally.

Starting with the Spaniards, cacao became a prized fruit of conquest and empire. By the time that Cortés conquered the Aztecs, cacao cultivation had already spread throughout Central America; the Spaniards established their own plantations in the region, including parts of the Caribbean. The Dutch took cacao to Indonesia, and Britain followed suit with Trinidad, Jamaica and Sri Lanka. The French, German and Portuguese colonialists all played their part in the global spread of cacao plantations. Although the Gold Coast (now Ghana) and the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) were among the last to be seeded, West Africa now produces 70% of the world’s cacao.

The Global Picture

The world produces around 3.5 million tonnes of cacao per year. For the past century, demand has grown by 3% annually – to the stage where we are consuming more today than is being produced. Cacao has become a commodity traded on international exchanges in both actual and virtual amounts. As cacao can last for a few years if stored in the right conditions, investors can ‘play the market’ and stored stock can be released. The market is estimated to be worth around $5 billion annually, with the UK market accounting for £4 billion, but prices are very volatile at present.

Around five million growers and 50 million workers are involved in cacao production (most ‘estates’, or rather smallholdings, are just 2.5-3.5 hectares in size). The vast majority (90%) of production is of so-called ‘bulk’ beans, mainly Forastero, generally blended and used in mass chocolate manufacture. Half the world’s cocoa products are marketed by five big brands. The remaining 10% of ‘fine and flavour’ cacao – mostly the Trinitario cross breed with a tiny proportion of Criollo – comes mainly from the Dominican Republic, Peru, Ecuador, Madagascar, Grenada, Papua New Guinea, Trinidad, Sao Tomé and Venezuela. As you might imagine, the differences in price, grower rewards and production techniques are vast – and at the poorer, bulk end of the scale, arguably unsustainable. 


The largest cocoa bean-producing countries in the world

Country Amount produced Percentage of world production
Côte d’Ivoire 1.3 million tons 37.4%
Ghana 720 thousand tons 20.7%
Indonesia 440 thousand tons 12.7%
Cameroon 175 thousand tons 5.0%
Nigeria 160 thousand tons 4.6%
Brazil 155 thousand tons 4.5%
Ecuador 118 thousand tons 3.4%
Dominican Republic 47 thousand tons 1.4%
Malaysia 30 thousand tons 0.9% 

Child workers from the Ivory Coast. Image courtesy of Roberto Romano.

The Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – Crisis and Fairtrade

The political turmoil raging in the Côte d’Ivoire, and the recent cacao export embargo threatening the survival of hundreds of thousands of smallholders, must have given chocolate lovers some pause for thought.

Though we hear less of it, trafficked child labour – essentially slave labour – that is endemic in the region should also prompt us to ask exactly where and how our chocolate is produced.

Ghana, the second largest global cacao producer after Côte d’Ivoire, has its share of major problems too, though it is also the fulcrum of a strong beam of hope and intervention. Over half the growers in West Africa live below the UN-defined poverty line of $2 per day. Many have grubbed up their forest land to grow more profitable crops than cacao. The disappearance of trees and increase in global warming have led to rainfall reduction, the drying up of rivers and encroachment of desert. Reduction in pollinating insects and poor management of plantations by increasingly elderly farmers, exploited and unable to invest in good practice, leads to unsustainably low yields.

Executive Kuapa Kokoo Member Juliet Brago in Ghana.

The first Fairtrade chocolate bar was launched in 1998 by Divine Chocolate (then called the Day Chocolate Company) in collaboration with the Ghanaian farmers’ co-operative, Kuapa KoKoo. To ensure cocoa farmers enjoy a dignified livelihood, the company established a farmer-ownership model that provides transparent, accountable and democratic procedures and (via Fairtrade Foundation guarantee) access to the highest point of the value chain. They are able to develop environmentally friendly cultivation of cocoa by, for example, planting more shade trees to improve moisture conservation, which leads to increased yields from healthy trees. Divine chocolate company has moved to producing own-label Fairtrade bars for the Co-operative grocery chain and for Starbucks.

Great Initiatives. Great Chocolate

Recent years have seen a number of global cocoa industry initiatives attempt to improve conditions worldwide. But wheels seem to grind slowly and nothing has come of them. The UN International Cocoa Agreement of 2010 comes into effect in 2012 and the hope is that it will improve transparency and sustainability.

Fair Trade cacao from the Conacado co-operative, founded in 1988 in the Dominican Republic.

A number of international Fair Trade initiatives are achieving small scale but significant advances, boosted by the vision and commitment of quality chocolate producers. Chocolate & Love, an online chocolate boutique also selling its own-label bars, uses cacao from two certified Fairtrade co-operatives in Peru and the Dominican Republic. The organic status bars are produced in Switzerland, and for every bar sold a tree is planted in Ethiopia by WeForest, a non-profit organization aiming to reforest 20 million square kilometres of the earth.

Not all chocolatiers opt to follow the Fairtrade route. The reasons most often cited are bureaucracy, lack of commitment to environmental concerns and in particular, a focus that is not ultimately on finesse. Some choose instead to invest considerable time, energy and finance in working directly with growers; or, in the case of truly tiny concerns, use cocoa mass or finished couverture from manufacturers who do so. This is the case with William Curley and Amedei couverture, for example.

The Grenada Chocolate Company factory, founded in 1999.

At the other extreme is the Grenada Chocolate Company, actually producing chocolate ‘from tree to bar’ right where it is grown, in the hot and humid conditions of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada. To achieve this, owner Mott Green had to build his own specially adapted machinery and cooling equipment, powered by solar-electric energy. Mott’s aim is “to revolutionize the cocoa-chocolate system” as well as to produce dark, organic chocolate bars that perfectly express the character of the local beans. The company works also with Rococo  and supply chocolate to Melt.

The Planet: Replant It

Philipp Kauffman Head of Original Beans.

There is even a company that came to chocolate via conservation rather than vice versa. Original Beans exists to replant trees and conserve rainforests. Chocolate, decided forestry conservationist Philip Kauffmann, was the obvious way to do so: “Every chocolate eater has an intrinsic relationship with trees and rainforests since that is where cacao comes from… together we must find ways to conserve and replenish the bounty of the Earth.” Chocolate lovers are invited to witness ongoing work in Ecuador, the Beni region of the Amazon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, by keying in online a specific code linked to the bar they are eating: “Go see your trees, and the future, taking root.”


* Production estimates for 2006–2007 from The International Cocoa Organization. The percentage is the proportion of the world’s total of 3.5 million tonnes for the relevant period.


In your June Magazine:

June Interview: Santiago Peralta from Pacari

What’s New at The Chocolate Festival?

News from The World of Chocolate

June Competition

June Recipes

Chocabulary: Arriba Nacional


Club Chocolate


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