An estimated 70% of world cocoa production is grown by smallholders, largely in low input, low intensity agricultural systems. Cocoa grows best in humid tropical conditions and so it is grown in the tropical rainforest zones of the world.
Although cocoa leaves the smallest mark of all the tropical cash crops, as it requires some shade and forest cover and has few inputs, widespread clearing of the forests for intensive cocoa production on large plantations can result in destruction of ecosystems which are slow to regenerate. Intensive large scale cocoa production can also result in reductions in biodiversity and soil fertility, soil erosion, stream sedimentation and health and environmental problems associated with agrochemical application and run-off. But, as mentioned above, most of the world's cocoa production is on small holders plots which are more environmentally friendly.
Cocoa can be grown with consideration for the environment. Part of this process involves educating the farmers and promoting sustainable development.
With low world prices farmers often cannot afford chemical inputs and a great deal of cocoa is produced in a more or less organic fashion.
Some farms are also established in thinned forest. This retains some of the biodiversity and soil fertility, reduces soil erosion and requires fewer agrochemical inputs. However, establishing a farm on thinned forest is more labour intensive than through forest clearance.
In Ecuador many of the cocoa growing areas show great biodiversity. They are often organically farmed due to the expense of pesticides etc and farmers grow a variety of agricultural products as a form of risk management in order to deal with the effects of market fluctuations, floods, droughts, diseases, etc.
In Brazil in 1994 a new genus and species of bird (Acrobatornis fonsecai) was found on a Bahia cocoa farm which mimicked the Atlantic coast ecosystem extremely well.
The Rainforest Alliance and Cloud Nine Chocolates have produced a cocoa certification guide for an Eco-OK programme, and, in an effort to encourage and promote the sustainable management of the crop, they have begun certifying farms in western Ecuador.
Laird, S.A., Obialor, C., Skinner, E.A., An introductory handbook to cocoa certification. A feasibility study and regional profile of West Africa. Rainforest Alliance, 1996
Berg, K., Ecuadorian cocoa. Ecologically sound. Coffee & Cocoa International, 24 (5): 41-42, September/October 1997