It feels like a nature conservation marketing dream, but we are getting closer to the day when we can ask people to eat a chocolate bar to help save a rainforest.

Let me explain...

The RSPB is developing a chocolate bar, made from cocoa grown by local farmers living around the Gola Rainforest National Park in Sierra Leone -  home to endangered pygmy hippos and chimpanzees, as well as more than 300 bird and 600 butterfly species. 

By working with the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone, Government of Sierra Leone, Twin & Twin Trading, BirdLife International, and with support from Comic Relief, we are empowering more than 2,000 farmers, living around the National Park, to join forces to form the Goleagorbu Cocoa Producers Organization. Our team is providing training, equipment and technical support for farmers in sustainable farming practices, so they are able to protect the forest, whilst improving the productivity and quality of their shade-grown cocoa (which supports more birds than traditional farmland).  

This is one of the mechanisms by which the partnership supports 24,000 people with improved local livelihoods and food security, whilst ensuring that the National Park is protected.

Now, the UK is a major consumer of chocolate (the fourth largest in the world) and the majority of cocoa is produced in the tropical forested region of Africa and is grown by small-scale farmers. Most cocoa farmers suffer from high levels of poverty, due at least in part to cocoa’s low price and lack of supportive infrastructure. Critically, farmers only receive a very small percentage of the overall value of a chocolate bar – somewhere between 3-6%.

Cocoa farmers face many challenges in developing a livelihood from cocoa, and often struggle with low production due to old trees, limited technical capacity, lack of access to premium markets, and lack of income to invest in improvements. This not only perpetuates high levels of poverty, it also drives tropical forest loss, as farmers clear new areas for planting more cocoa to support themselves. This, along with the development of sun-tolerant hybrids, which allow for more intensive, full-sun cocoa plantations, has driven significant tropical forest clearance in the main West African cocoa growing countries, of an estimated 2.3 million ha between 1988-2007 (see here).  

And the ultimate driver for this is our love of chocolate.

Industry awareness of the need to address cocoa driven deforestation is increasing, with recent announcements from the 12 biggest cocoa companies committing to zero deforestation cocoa supply chains. This is a very important step, and whilst there are a lot of challenges for achieving this ambitious commitment, there also a lot of opportunities, as cocoa can be grown in ways that are better for biodiversity and marketed in ways that are better for the cocoa farmers. Our work with our partners on the the Gola Rainforest Cocoa project is demonstrating this.

We are therefore very excited to have in our hands, the first, very exclusive, sample chocolate bars from Gola (shown below), and I can say from personal experience that they taste delicious.  We are now planning to develop the chocolate bars for sale in our own shops.

While the RSPB spends much of its time tackling the impact of our actions on wildlife at home in the UK, we need to grow our understanding and reduce the impact of our footprint of our consumption on wildlife around the world.  My hope is that Gola Rainforest chocolate will provide a practical example of how we can tread more lightly on the planet.

I look forward to sharing Gola Rainforest chocolate very soon...

Images courtesy of Nicolas Tubbs (cocoa and chocolate bar) and Jonathan Barnard (farmer planting)