Arcus Foundation's Support of Mighty Earth Has Major Impact on a Destructive Cacao Industry

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Arcus Foundation's Support of Mighty Earth Has Major Impact on a Destructive Cacao Industry

Chocolate: We love it for so many reasons. Its taste. Its texture. Its ability to become a suite of bonbons filled with caramel and dusted with sea salt. But chocolate starts as cacao—a waxy, bitter bean encased in a Nerf-football-shaped pod that grows straight from the tree trunk—and cacao farming is notorious for labor exploitation, child labor, and large-scale environmental destruction.

Cacao grows in a band around the middle of the globe, basically 20 degrees north and south of the equator. About 70 percent of the world’s cacao comes from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, where cacao farming has denuded some of the world’s most spectacular and environmentally critical rainforests. If you look at satellite images of the Cote d’Ivoire’s forests from 2000 to 2014, it’s like seeing a piece of green construction paper left out in the sun—all of the color bleached white. African animals, left essentially homeless, have become vulnerable to disease, poaching and starvation. Chimpanzees are now an endangered species here. Elephants, once the pride of Cote d’Ivoire (their namesake), number around 400 in the country.

Some U.S. craft chocolate makers have turned to ethically sourcing cacao closer to home. They’re forging relationships with farmers and farmer cooperatives in Central and South America, paying two or three times the commodity price for cacao, and helping farmers obtain certifications such as Fair Trade or UTZ that bring higher prices in exchange for good growing practices. Still, these small-batch, bean-to-bar makers comprise just a fraction of the $100 billion global chocolate industry, and the major manufacturers such as Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s and Cadbury have a long history of deeply damaging sourcing.

Enter the Arcus Foundation. This New York- and Cambridge-based funder, focused on great ape and gibbon conservation (and LGBT social justice), supports a project that may finally alter the cacao industry’s deeply destructive, century-old course. In 2017, Arcus allocated $350,000 to support Mighty Earth’s work to stop deforestation connected to commercial agriculture, including cacao. This grant, while not huge, has already had outsized impact.

Mighty Earth—a nimble, aggressive environmental advocacy and action group—is part of the nonprofit Center for International Policy in D.C. It was incubated by the public relations and lobbying group Waxman Strategies (chaired by the former U.S. Representative from California Henry Waxman). Beyond Arcus, the Packard Foundation is another major grantmaker providing support.

Mighty Earth targets groups or industries wreaking havoc on the forests, oceans or air, and pushes them to change. “The extent to which big chocolate brands like Mars are linked to the destruction of national parks and protected areas is shocking,” says Etelle Higonnet, Mighty Earth’s campaign and legal director. “These companies need to take immediate action to end deforestation once and for all, and remediate past damage.”

After the release of Mighty Earth’s Arcus-funded report, “Chocolate’s Dark Secrets,” in September, 2017, the major chocolate companies responded with promises to make change.

Then, in February, still working under the Arcus grant, Mighty Earth released an update to that report in time for the annual chocolate-giving extravaganza known as Valentine’s Day. The new report highlighted environmentally damaging cacao growing beyond West Africa. Mighty Earth called on the chocolate companies to extend their commitments to change. Once again, its work paid off...


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