The eco-friendliness of cacao farming entirely depends on where and how the cacao trees are planted.
In the worst of cases, people cut down a native forest to make way for a monoculture plantation of cacao trees. In the context of both biodiversity and climate change, this is a bad outcome. Native forests store 4x as much carbon and 35x more species than cacao monocultures.
Clearing forest to plant monocultures is how most new cacao plantations are created throughout the tropics. A lot of trees are being cut down in the name of chocolate.
A Carbon Comparison of Native Forest, Cacao Agroforestry, and Cacao Monoculture (Source: ResearchGate)
Reversing Deforestation with Regenerative Agroforestry
Cacao farming is not intrinsically destructive to the environment. When planted in the context of a diverse agroforestry system, it can be a tool to regenerate deforested land.
Cacao trees are naturally adapted to survive and thrive in the understory of the tropical forest. Therein lies the advantage of cacao farming in the realm of forest restoration.
Cacao trees can be planted in combination with a diverse array of other food-producing trees and native trees. Regenerative agroforestry is the application of this method on degraded agricultural land. It becomes a mechanism for forest restoration.
This is the basis for our work in Ecuador.
Cacao Monoculture (left) vs Regenerative Agroforestry (right)
Bad Outcome: Converting native forest into a cacao monoculture. This is deforestation.
Good Outcome: Converting cattle pasture or degraded agricultural land into a diverse polyculture of cacao combined with a variety of other trees. This is regenerative agroforestry.
Check out Regenerative Cacao for a quick primer.
For a deeper dive into how To’ak and its rainforest conservation partners are using this method to reverse deforestation, go to Using Cacao to Reverse Deforestation.