The 50th anniversary of Earth Day seems like the perfect time to turn our attention to the differences between sustainably-grown and non-sustainably grown cacao. Hint: sustainable is the good kind, and it’s what we use!
First, a tiny overview. Cacao trees grow only in the tropical belt from about ten degrees north to ten degrees south of the equator. Rainforests, our best carbon sinks and most biodiverse habitat on the planet, are where cacao trees thrive. These small trees love the stable temperatures, the rich soil, the protection from the wind, and the shade offered by other, taller tropical trees. This is the environment in which cacao trees originated and have grown for millenia.
As chocolate became a valued commodity, rainforests were cleared by thousands of acres in order to make room for more cacao trees, causing cacao to be thought of one of the most destructive crops on the planet. Sadly, the slash and burn clearing continues in some places today. For example, In one wooded area of Belize that we visited in 2015 and then again in 2017, a vast area had been clear cut in between our visits, enclosed by a barbed wire fence, and planted with cacao saplings and nothing else. (We were told a Canadian company was the owner.) It was one of the saddest sights I have ever seen. This is not sustainably-grown cacao.
Chocolate Riot buys our cacao from sustainable sources. The small farms have trees that are grown among other trees and income-producing crops including mandarin, pineapple, banana, and plantain. There are also some hardwood trees that are sustainably harvested as well as a tree nicknamed “madre de cacao.” This gliricidia tree is perfect for shading the cacao trees, and it also fixes nitrogen in the soil and has insect-repelling properties.
In addition to growing cacao in the shade and multi cropping, which protects biodiversity, improves carbon sequestration, and enriches the soil, Chocolate Riot’s farmers employ other practices that enhance sustainability. They have worked hard to learn specialized pruning and natural fertilizing techniques that help control pests and greatly increase the yield from their small farms. Farmers get much more out of what they already have, and the precious rainforest is protected. This is sustainably-grown cacao, and we are proud to use it in our chocolate.