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Roses Are Red But Chocolate Can Be Green

A Cacao farm in Belize.
by Staff Writers
Maynard, MA (SPX) Feb 14, 2007
On Valentine's Day, millions of Americans will say, "I love you," with chocolate. Yet the international cocoa industry has paradoxically led to negative impacts on tropical environments and economies, from deforestation to child labor. This summer, Earthwatch volunteers will explore how cacao farming in Belize can benefit both farmers and tropical biodiversity.

America is the world's largest chocolate consumer, eating more than 3 billion pounds of chocolate each year and spending $13 billion on it. Cacao farmers receive a mere 5 percent of these profits, and most cacao growing areas do not feel the benefit of this lucrative market. Meanwhile, cacao farming is responsible for an estimated 14 percent of the deforestation that has destroyed rainforests in West Africa, and a large percentage in South America as well. Earthwatch teams plan to help things go differently in the Central American nation of Belize.

"Shade grown cacao can create forest-like habitat for tropical biodiversity in a rapidly deforested landscape, while simultaneously providing a lucrative crop for agricultural communities," said Jorge Cawich, principal investigator of Earthwatch's Sustainable Cacao Farming project. "The threats to biodiversity in Belize are unquestionably rooted in poverty, rated at a staggering 79 percent in the Toledo District."

In July, Cawich (Tropical Agricultural Research Centre) will be leading Earthwatch volunteers into the forests of Belize to determine how organic cacao farms can help turn the local economy around. Teams will work near some of the most pristine rainforest in Belize, and experience a degree of natural and cultural diversity few tourists ever see. The Earthwatch project is just one of more than 100 around the globe providing volunteers the unique opportunity to work alongside leading scientists.

Cacao trees, the source of those unusual seeds from which they make cocoa, are uniquely suited for organic, shade grown conditions. The low trees do best in the protection of the rainforest canopy, relying on the tall, mature trees to protect them from wind and sun and conserve soil moisture.

Cacao trees also rely entirely on rainforest birds, mammals, and insects to eat their tasty pods and scatter their seeds. Other rainforest animals, from bats to parasitic wasps, help prevent the outbreak of pest insects, with out the use of costly or dangerous pesticides. Shade grown cacao farms not only help protect rainforest diversity, but are also more productive.

"A growing body of evidence suggests that cacao yield and local biodiversity may be interdependent," said Cawich. "Yet efforts to promote cacao currently focus on the amount of land covered by these plantations, rather than their actual productivity. This means that benefits for the people growing cacao are currently very low."

In July, Earthwatch teams will help Cawich collect information on cacao farms in the tropical forests of Belize. They will document the plants and animals found on cacao farms, and compare it to those found on land devoted to other agricultural uses. Volunteers will also measure cacao yields, and determine the relation between farm practices and productivity.

Cawich will also be interviewing farmers for indigenous knowledge on farming practices. The Maya people were the first to cultivate cacao, and have been growing it in the region for thousands of years. With a little help from Earthwatch volunteers and enlightened consumers, they may be growing it for thousands more.

Earthwatch's mission is to engage people worldwide in scientific field research and education to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment. Please include the web site for Earthwatch Institute ( in any story based on this release.

For more about Earthwatch's Sustainable Cacao Farming project in Belize, go to

See A Year On Earth, the award-winning documentary featuring Earthwatch projects, on Discovery HD Theater, February 18 at 9:00 PM. and FEB 19 at 5:00 PM (check local listings). More here

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