You have to get up very early in the morning to fool a chimpanzee. More importantly, the next morning you have to get up earlier still. I know this because I recently enjoyed a long conversation with Foday Brima, who farms cacao on the fringes of the Gola rainforest in Sierra Leone, and his colleague Joseph Yambasu.
Brima and Yambasu were in the UK to learn about the consumer end of the chocolate supply chain, and to take part in a round-table discussion on forest-friendly cultivation, hosted by the NGO Twin and the RSPB. From them, I learned a lot about cacao cultivation, agricultural economics and practical sociology. Also: primate management.
The first thing that Brima does every morning is to check that his crop has not been disturbed by animals. That might mean birds, pygmy hippos, tree squirrels… but mainly chimpanzees. “I get to the farm at 8am and bang on an empty drum to scare them away.” The next morning, though, they will come earlier to avoid him, “because they are clever.” So Brima gets there earlier still. Unpredictability is the key.
These measures are necessary because chimpanzees love cacao pods, the soft fruit that surrounds the beans which are the fundamental ingredient of chocolate. Not only do they love them, but they are very good at harvesting them.
Cacao pods grow straight out of the trunk of the tree, some way off the ground. Chimpanzees jump up and twist them off the tree. “They are almost as good at us at harvesting the cacao,” Brima says. “But they twist to get them off, while we cut. That twisting is bad for the tree, for future crops.”
So to dissuade the chimpanzees, the farmers around the rainforest plant distractions that are both easier for the chimps to get at, and less costly for the farmers to lose. “Bananas and mangoes. They love those.”
This tolerant – even generous – behaviour on the part of the farmers is an example of Forest-Friendly cocoa production, an initiative that the farmers are developing with funding from the ethically active brand Divine Chocolate, and assistance from the non-profit development-through-trade NGO Twin, to ensure not only a decent income from their crops but the preservation and enhancement of their local environment for future generations.
The more benevolent attitude towards chimpanzees is symptomatic of a wider concern for all the flora and fauna of the rainforest. The farmers know better than anyone that they live in a complex and interdependent ecosystem. But until recently it has not been easy to square care for that system with the cultivation of crops that bring a decent financial return.
Now, though, Brima and Yambasu and their farming colleagues know that if they grow their cacao in ways that will secure them Fairtrade and Organic certification, they will get premium prices for their crops.
“The more quality we have, the more money we have,” as Brima puts it. “Money for community needs.”
At the UK end of the food chain, which the two Sierra Leonean farmers were visiting to experience, it is gradually becoming easier to eat chocolate with a clear conscience. As consumers have become queasily aware that their favourite sweet indulgence has for years been provided at terrible cost to farmers and the environment, particularly rainforests, so large-scale producers have been starting to take steps to address the issues.
Bars of Dairy Milk now wear “Cocoa Life” logos, and some of the bars heaviest in cheap fat and sugar are now appearing in “Dark Milk” forms that promote the quality and importance of their cocoa content. Brands that make great play of their ethical standards, such as the Dutch-based Tony’s Chocolonely, are starting to appear more often on our supermarket shelves.
But chocolate companies that have long been drawing attention to these issues – while making very good chocolate – are pushing on further, and taking action where their investments of time and money can be most effective: where the cacao beans are grown. Hence Divine and Twin’s work with the farmers from Sierra Leone, who grow cacao on the fringes of the Gola rainforest, a 270 sq mile area that is some of the most ancient terrain of its kind still in existence.
The land that Brima and Yambasu and their colleagues farm is home not only to their families but to more than 300 species of birds and a wonderful range of animals, including at least 60 critically endangered species – and the elusive pygmy hippo. The farmers’ drive towards forest-friendly cultivation means spurning the advances of traders who offer to buy up cacao beans regardless of their provenance and cultivation methods – beans likely to end up in mass-produced bars.
In return for opting instead for certified production, the rainforest farmers get not only premium prices but the chance to preserve their ancestral environment for future generations. Brima was one of the leading advocates of change around the forest, walking for miles from village to village to persuade groups of farmers to sign up to the protocols.
He is convinced that this is the right way forward. “We protect the forest, and the forest protects us. The forest makes sure that we have rain for our crops, and fresh air. Seeds from the forest bring us companion plants that help the cacao to grow well – they give not too much shade, not too much sun.”
Birds and other wildlife from the forest come into what Brima calls the “buffer zone” of cacao to rest, and in so doing control naturally the pests that might otherwise harm the crop. “So our yields improve.”
And so life for the forest farming communities improves. There is funding for better water supplies, and funding for better transport infrastructure. Other changes, too, come with Fairtrade certification: “Gender issues,” Brima acknowledges, with a smile. “This is a change. Now we have gender officers, and at times they serve as relationship counsellors. We have a child labour officer as well – an advocate for children.”
There is an Environmental Protection Unit as well, to make sure that communal bodies of water are protected, and that unscrupulous folk are not diverting water from drinking reservoirs to farm irrigation. “That’s something the Premium Committee can think about too, when they decide how to spend our money,” Brima explained. “We could build a well.”
All of these things are making life better for the farming communities on the edge of the rainforest, protecting the local ecosystem – and incidentally ensuring a healthy supply of bananas and mangoes for those pesky chimpanzees.
Chocolate bars that give something back
Chocolat Madagascar , from £4.95, cocoarunners.com; chocolat madagascar.com
Much-prized, made “tree-to-bar” in Madagascar, an unusual instance of manufacture close to where the crop is grown.
Solkiki , from £6.50, solkiki.co.uk
Small-batch, multiple award-winning, vegan bars made in Dorset with directly traded cocoa so that Iris and Bob, the makers, know they are buying beans grown by good people in the right way.
Divine , from 79p; widely available
Market leaders in ethical and tasty chocolate bars. A large proportion of the company is owned by African cacao farmers, among whom women have a powerful voice
Tony’s Chocolonely , from £1.69, tonyschoco lonely.com
Committed to making chocolate 100 per cent slavery free, these chunky Dutch bars in colourful wrappers are in hundreds of UK stores.