The world’s passion for chocolate is having unexpectedly far-reaching effects. It’s endangering the world’s primate population. So says a study by Ohio State University’s Scott McGraw and colleagues, published in March in Tropical Conservation Science. McGraw and team spent over 200 days tramping through 18 forest reserves and five national parks of the Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) – the small country on Africa’s west coast that produces some 35 percent of the world’s cocoa, the key ingredient of all things chocolate. McGraw was hoping to find monkeys. Instead, he found – well, a lot of cocoa.
Cocoa–a.k.a. “brown gold”–has dominated the Ivory Coast’s economy for the past 50 years, and now accounts for 22 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, half of its exports and two-thirds of its jobs. As well as chocolate central, however, the Ivory Coast is a hotspot for global biodiversity. It’s part of the lush Guinean Forest Region, home to some 9,000 species of plants, 985 species of birds, and 320 species of mammals, among them 22 species of primates. The problem is that cocoa and biodiversity simply don’t seem to get along here.
McGraw’s group found that 13 of 23 protected reserves and parks now had no primate species at all, and five had lost half of their original primate populations. Two species of previously endangered primates – the Roloway monkey and the White-Naped Mangabey – were found to be so rare as to be critically endangered.
Instead of monkeys, chimpanzees, and old-growth forest, McGraw’s group found “a sea of cocoa plants.” About 75 percent of the supposedly protected territories had been converted to illegal cocoa plantations. There were also plantings of other crops, among them bananas, yams, maize, and rice– and even entire illegal villages, the largest with a population of up to 30,000. The conclusion was unmistakable: cocoa in, primates out.
So what happened? In part, the cocoa takeover was due to political unrest and outright civil war in the Ivory Coast, during which prolonged period the government had little time to spare for monitoring forest reserves. People, unopposed, simply moved in, cut down trees and planted cocoa. Another problem was the decline of legal cocoa plantations: disease, productivity drop-off, and lack of maintenance during the Ivory Coast’s wars all took their toll. And a third was the exploding international demand for chocolate. (See Can GMOs Can Save Chocolate?)
The Ivory Coast’s story isn’t an isolated incident. It’s just an extreme example of the dive biodiversity is taking worldwide. We human beings have, at a guess, modified about half of the world’s land surface to suit ourselves, for – among other things – agriculture, roads, cities, and towns. A recent study in the science journal Nature calculated that, over the past 500 years, our meddling has led to a 13.6 percent decline in total number of plant and animal species.
Monkeys and cocoa, however, don’t have to be in a state of hopeless stand-off. In Brazil, for example, the practice of cabruca – rainforest-friendly chocolate – promotes compromise. In shade plantations, tall old-growth trees are preserved and cocoa plants are grown in the forest understory. For the Brazilian golden lion tamarin, this has been a lifesaver. Deforestation, however, for Ivory Coast primates, is – says Scott McGraw – a “death knell.”