For most World Chocolate Day is just an excuse to eat a lot of chocolate. But this year we are asking people to think about the impact our love of chocolate has on the world.

We’ve been told about the impact palm oil has on Indonesian rainforests and the impact intensive beef farming has on our climate. But when standing in the confectionery aisle at the supermarket have you ever stopped to think about the environmental impact of cocoa? Probably not.

Traditionally, cocoa is grown at low intensity under the shade of forest trees. In this way the environmental impact is low. But, to keep up with our insatiable demand for cheap chocolate, cocoa farming has evolved and new varieties of cocoa trees have been developed that can be grown in full-sun plantations. Forest trees go from being important protectors of the cocoa tree, to taking up space where a cocoa tree could be. The result has been vast deforestation to accommodate cocoa farm expansion.

Most of the chocolate we eat is grown in West Africa, where millions of hectares of primary forest has already been lost to cocoa farming, and deforestation rates continue to rise. Some studies even suggest that, because of the deforestation associated with cocoa farming, the carbon footprint of chocolate can be higher than that of lower intensity beef and lamb production.

The good news is there is forest-friendly chocolate too – like the RSPB’s Gola Rainforest Chocolate bar.

The RSPB has been working within in the Greater Gola Landscape in Sierra Leone and Liberia for 30 years, working with local partners towards the sustainable management of a critically important area of rainforest and the support of forest-edge communities. One component of this has been the development of a forest-friendly cocoa business.

The Gola landscape is made up of a mosaic of different areas including protected rainforest (National Parks and Forest Reserves), primary rainforest which is owned by local communities, villages, subsistence farmland and cocoa farms.

For the landscape to function as an ecosystem, the areas of protected forest and community forest need not only to be protected, but also connected, allowing wildlife to move throughout the landscape. Cocoa farms are one way in which this can be done, provided it is grown in the traditional way under the forest canopy. When grown in this way, cocoa farms provide forest-like habitat which can support forest biodiversity and provide corridors of habitat between the areas of high-quality rainforest. In Gola we have identified 130 species of birds using the cocoa farms, including the globally endangered brown-cheeked hornbill and yellow-casqued hornbill, as well as UK wood warblers who spend the winter in Liberia.

But this environmentally-friendly way of farming is only sustainable if the farmers are rewarded financially for doing so. There needs to be an economic incentive for them to keep the forest standing and not convert to full-sun farming where they would be able to grow more cocoa.

Currently there are no price premiums attached to forest-friendly, sustainable cocoa. So, the Gola partnership has been working with farmers to improve their quality and yield of cocoa in order to negotiate a higher price on a case by case basis with buyers. We are also helping the farmers obtain Fairtrade and Organic certification, in order to gain access to the price premiums that are currently available. But this isn’t enough, consumers must acknowledge the need for rewarding forest-friendly farmers for the role they play in actively conserving rainforests and globally threatened wildlife. So, our next phase of work will involve defining and communicating what forest-friendly cocoa really means and why we should care more about where our next mouthful of chocolate comes from.

In the meantime, you can celebrate World Chocolate Day (almost) guilt-free with us by enjoying some delicious Gola Rainforest chocolate available at your local RSPB shop or online.

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