More than 90 percent of the protected land in Ivory Coast has been lost to coca farming. Caption Mighty Earth

Big supermarkets have chocolate aisles full of dark and milk chocolate blocks, often at unbelievable discount prices while growers earn a pittance. Now the conventional chocolate industry is being blamed for accelerating deforestation in West Africa's Ivory Coast and Ghana, despite hollow corporate pledges to end the destruction from some of the world's leading chocolate traders and manufacturers.

'Chocolate's Dark Secret,' an investigation by US environmental campaign group Mighty Earth, found that a large volume of the cocoa for chocolate produced by Godiva, Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, and other major chocolate companies was grown illegally in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the two leading cocoa producers in the world.

The report documents that in national parks and other protected areas, at least 90 percent of the land mass was converted to cocoa. Less than four percent of Ivory Coast remains densely forested, and the chocolate companies’ laissez-faire approach to sourcing has driven extensive deforestation in Ghana as well.

The investigation found large villages of cocoa growers, in some cases consisting of tens of thousands of inhabitants, inside the protected national parks. Traders openly purchased cocoa beans grown illegally inside these areas, to sell them to the world’s largest chocolate companies.

Sindou Bamba, the general coordinator of the Coalition of Ivorian Human Rights Actors (RAIDH), said the cocoa industry continues to exploit both forests and communities of West Africa for cocoa that is sold for large quantities of cheap, environmentally unsustainable cocoa beans. Despite many chocolate companies’ public sustainability initiatives, these practices have continued without any real change.

On average, cocoa growers in Ivory Coast and Ghana are paid less than 80 cents (USD) per day and often work in dangerous conditions with long hours. Child labor is still prevalent throughout the industry, despite pledges by many chocolate companies to eliminate the practice. Back in 2010, Danish journalist Miki Mistrati published “The Dark Side of Chocolate,” a shocking documentary addressing how children in Ghana and Ivory Coast are forced into slave labor.

"The low price of cocoa costs us dearly here in Côte d’Ivoire regarding deforestation and human rights abuses. It is high time for the industry to start paying growers a living wage, and to implement sustainable production practices to ensure the resilience of local ecosystems because without forests we will all suffer and pay sooner or later," said Sindou Bamba.

Cocoa workers often earn less than 80 cents a day. Caption Mighty Earth

Three companies control around half of the world cocoa market: Cargill, Olam, and Barry Callebaut.

“The extent to which big chocolate brands like Mars are linked to the destruction of national parks and protected areas is shocking,” said Etelle Higonnet, Mighty Earth campaign and legal director. “These companies need to take immediate action to end deforestation once and for all, and remediate past damage.”  In Ivory Coast, deforestation has pushed chimpanzees into just a few small pockets and reduced the country’s elephant population from several hundred thousand to about 200-400.

It was reported in March 2017, that the CEOs of the world’s major chocolate companies agree over cocoa production causing deforestation. Hershey, Nestle, Mars and nine other companies agreed to work together to source their cocoa in a way that doesn’t lead to forest loss.

Loss of wildlife habitat with deforestation is a major problem. Caption Mighty Earth

The corporations said they would work with producer country’s governments, farmers, civil society organizations and development partners to address deforestation in cocoa supply chains. They said they would also invest in more sustainable landscape management and programs to help small farmers improve productivity.

But with West Africa’s forests nearing exhaustion, the chocolate industry has begun to bring its model to other rainforest regions like the Congo Basin, Southeast Asia’s Paradise Forests, and the Peruvian Amazon. (OWN covered the story “Peru: cacao up, but risks on the horizon”. Africa is home to 68 percent of global cocoa production, Asia to 17 percent and the Americas 15 percent.

“We must achieve a sustainable cocoa industry that respects forests, and that benefits communities and the country’s economy. The big chocolate companies must make financial and technical contributions to support the government’s conservation efforts,” said SIGNO Kouamé Soulago Fernand, general secretary ROSCIDET, a network of Ivorian NGOs specializing in environmental protection and sustainable development.

The Guardian newspaper in the UK said that in the Ivory Coast rainforest cover has dropped by over 80 percent since 1960.

The Guardian writer Ruth Maclean traveled across Ivory Coast with the Mighty Earth group and documented rainforests cleared for cocoa plantations; villages and farmers occupying supposedly protected national parks; enforcement officials taking bribes for turning a blind eye to infractions; and middlemen traders indifferent to the provenance of the cocoa beans supplied to the big brands.

When asked for comment, major brands such as Mars Mondelez and Nestle, and traders Cargill and Barry Callebaut did not deny the specific allegation that cocoa grown in the areas of illegal deforestation had entered their supply chains, The Guardian said.

Coffee beans ready for transport. Caption Mighty Earth

Barry Callebaut said they were working hard to stop this happening and restated a "commitment to be deforestation-free by 2025".

Mars told The Guardian it was "committed to identifying the best ways to end deforestation and forest degradation in the global cocoa supply chain."

Nestle said it was "opposed to the deforestation of rainforests and peatlands," describing it as one of the most serious environmental challenges facing the world.

Owner of Cadbury, Mondelez "acknowledged the issue of deforestation, something the company was actively trying to root out."

Hershey said it was committed to sourcing 100 percent certified, sustainably sourced cocoa by 2020. Ferrero Rocher did not provide a comment.

Cargill said it has "made a pledge to be to end the deforestation – and we are committed to delivering."

According to the Guardian, none of the companies said they would support a moratorium on deforestation of cocoa, or 100 percent shade-grown cocoa.

The Guardian and Mighty Earth interviewed traders and managers of cooperatives who said they bought cocoa from protected areas and sold to Olam, a global agri-business. Olam acknowledged one incident it noted was isolated and added that it was pursuing a string of initiatives to assure a clean supply chain.

“Olam is clear that deforestation by cocoa smallholders must be halted,” a spokesperson said while adding nonetheless: “it is a complex and highly fragmented supply chain, so the challenges of tracing back to each farmer are immense.”

At one cocoa yard belonging to a buyer called Sivacco in the city of Man, men sift the beans through big metal rectangular sieves and shovel it into sacks. Opposite to the yard was a sprawling sawmill with piles of sawdust, planks, and logs, and smoke billowing out behind it.

“We definitely have cocoa from the forest reserves here,” said the yard manager, who did not want to be named. “Pisteurs (motorcyclists) bring it here, and we can’t tell where exactly it comes from. We sell to all the big companies.”

Behind him was a big mural with the Rainforest Alliance symbol and a list of forbidden activities.

“We don’t care. We don’t even ask the producers where it comes from. The big companies never ask where it comes from either,” said a buyer in Taobly, a town on the edge of Mount Tia, a classified forest in the west of Ivory Coast. He said he sells to two big exporters who provide cocoa products to companies including Nestlé, Mars, and Hershey.

Mighty Earth said its report comes at a time of unique opportunity for the chocolate industry to take real action for a more environmentally responsible future. Earlier this year, Prince Charles convened CEOs and senior leadership of 34 chocolate industry companies to begin to urge them to act on deforestation. The companies pledged to come up with a concrete plan by November's climate summit in Bonn.