“Freeing the [man] without freeing the land, is but half an abolition”: Illegal cacao farms in Cote d’Ivoire

The origins of cacao consumption can be traced back to Mesoamerica, within the earliest period of Mayan culture, 250-900 CE. Within some of the earliest found writings, articles, and books known as the Dreseden and Mayan Codicies, the glyphs for cacao were present throughout the texts (Martin, 2015). The Latin name for cacao—Theobroma—literally means, “food of the gods” and cacao was heavily involved in various rites around marriage, birth, death, and fertility. For example, within the Madrid Codex are images of the goddess of the moon and the god of rain exchanging cacao to maintain the fertility of the earth. With the arrival of Europeans to the ‘new world’ cacao and chocolate were introduced to a new audience in the 16th century. Although dismissed as a low-brow consumption, something only ‘good enough for pigs’ (Martin, 2015), interest and a taste for chocolate grew, which in turn created a new economic stream which impacted the history, culture, society, and economy of almost every developed nation of that period.

The increase in demand for cacao led to a need for increased labor on plantations. The Spanish led the usage of indigenous populations first through a broken encomienda system, where colonists were able to demand tributes and labor in exchange for their ‘protection’, then through a system of repartimiento – a form of tribute-labor system where indigenous members were to do low-paid or unpaid labor for a fixed period of time on Spanish-owned properties – both of which were failed policies. This led to the advent of chattel slavery where, between the years 1500-1900, approximately 10-15 million enslaved Africans were brought to cacao producing colonies (Martin, 2015).

triangular slave trade

The majority of enslaved Africans were taken to the Caribbean and South America (Brazil). Travel to these destinations was harsh, slaves were stacked into ships, without concern for health or welfare; approximately 40% of slaves died on the voyage. For those who survived onto the final destination – their life expectancy was 7-8 years (Martin, 2015). The economics of slavery were diverse – colonists had varied interests in sugar, tobacco, cotton, and cacao – and the need to supply labor for these initiatives fell on the shoulders of African slaves. However, it has been argued that this was not based on racism or prejudiced beliefs, but the ‘logistic availability of cheap labor. As shared in class, Eric Williams, a historian and the former Prime Minister of Trinidad & Tobago wrote in his book Capitalism & Slavery (1944),

“ …white laborers in the colonies would tend to create rivalry with the mother country in manufacturing. Better black slaves on plantations than white servants in industry, which would encourage aspirations to independence. The supply moreover was becoming increasingly difficult, and the need of the plantations outstripped the English convictions. In addition, merchants were involved in many vexatious and costly proceedings arising from people signifying their willingness to emigrate, accepting food and clothes in advance, and then sueing for unlawful detention. On the plantations, escape was easy for the white servant; less easy for the Negro who, if freed, tended, in self-defence, to stay in his locality where he was well known and less likely to be apprehended as a vagrant or runaway slave. The servant expected land at the end of his contract; the Negro, in a strange environment, conspicuous by his color and feature, and ignorant of the white man’s language and ways, could be kept permanently divorced from the land. Racial differences made it easier to justify and rationalize Negro slavery. Finally, and this was the decisive factor, the Negro slave was cheaper. The money which procured a white man’s services for ten years could buy a Negro for life. Here, then, is the origin of Negro slavery. The reason was economic, not racial; it had to do not with the color of the laborer, but the cheapness of the labor. As compared with Indian and white labor, Negro slavery was eminently superior.”

Perhaps this was written to share a neutral and unbiased perspective, as Williams was a Black man raised in the colonial era. However to read this rationalization, can lead one to believe that there was a willful blindness to the inherent biases against Africans, which were based on their race. Williams ignores the forced box that Africans were placed into once on plantations (their skin tone makes them easily identified as ‘other’) and ignores the prejudicial mindset of other colonists: If they saw a black slave, then he must have escaped; whereas a white slave/servant would be more difficult to identify on the presumption that all white men are inherently free. He does not acknowledge the systems in place that forced slaves to have few options towards personal or professional growth; as language and cultural educations were purposefully denied. Finally, he overlooks the basic human rights denied to African slaves because they were dehumanized and referred to as ‘goods and property’. Yet, this mindset prevailed among colonial plantation owners, seeped into societal views leading to periods of civil war and political unrest, and unfortunately; still persists over seventy (70) years later. Those enslaved may have changed – women, children – but the ‘rationalization’ remains: they are cheap labor, easily controlled, with nowhere to go. Though slavery has been banned for centuries (or decades depending on geographic location), it is still practiced in several industries, cacao among them.

Côte d’Ivoire, historically, has been reliant on exports. In the latter half of the 19th century, Europeans owned cacao plantations. After the World War I, ownership and growth shifted to African nationals. Cacao growth rapidly expanded through 1939 when production was once again halted with the advent of World War II. After this conflict, cacao production resumed, along with an emphasis on coffee. It was not until the ‘cocoa boom’ in the 1970s, where several government programs were created to support and encourage cacao growth, did it become the leading good of Côte d’Ivoire that it is today. (Gbetibouo and Delgado, pp. 121-123). Today, Côte d’Ivoire produces over 40% of the cacao consumed in the world. As shown in the chart below, the country’s lead in production is increasing year-on-year with cocoa bean production in the country expected: in 2013-14 they produced an estimated 1.730 thousand tonnes for, an increase from the 1.449 thousand tonnes recorded in the previous year.

cocoa productin and consumption mapcacao production chart

Though reports share that this year (2015) cacao farms are ahead of schedule in growth and output compared to last year, this is not universal across the country. April to September is considered the mid-crop period for farmers; during June and July, most plantations begin preparing the land for the next, upcoming crop to start in October. However several plantations are behind schedule this year; due to issues with drought, fungus, and an overall, low growing season impacting their land. Further, due to the lack of product, they are also short on cash needed to buy additional labor, pesticides, treatments, and fertilizers, to prepare for the upcoming season (Zawya Reuters, 2015).

Further, issues of investment revenue, farming interest, and access to land have all contributed to questions around the continued sustainability of long-term cacao production in Côte d’Ivoire. How the country and government choose to overcome these issues is still a piece in ‘progress’, but as various rights organizations continue to call for greater responsibility – of chocolate producing companies and of governments – the status of cacao farmers may change. In the interim, supplemental forms of cacao production exist, which have greater impacts on the land and surrounding wildlife.

A recent article shared a discovery of ‘rogue’ cacao plantations in Côte d’Ivoire. They are found within, what are supposed to be protected areas (PAs) of national forests, parks, and reserves. However, interviews with farmers highlight that they have existed in these areas for years, and though they provide a modest contribution to cacao output – the estimated annual yield of cacao from farms within these protected areas is 195,600 tons – the greatest area for concern, is the impact that they are having on the ecosystem, specifically the region’s unique space as a home for a variety of primates. A group of researchers specifically studied the impact of illegal cacao farms on the regions biodiversity.

Study protected areas

“Côte d’Ivoire comprises part of West Africa’s Guinean Forest Region, an ecosystem of great biological richness, species diversity, and endemism. The region is a World Biodiversity Hotspot, hosting over 2,250 endemic plant and 270 vertebrate species. Côte d’Ivoire is home to twenty-two primate [classifications], including 18 [narrow-nosed] species, and ranks second among West African countries in terms of primate diversity” (Bitty, p. 96). The research team spent three years collecting and recording data from twenty-three (23) protected areas (PA) – eighteen (18) forest reserves and five (5) national parks – within Côte d’Ivoire, found in the central and southern forest zone of the country. The team focused on how many different primate classifications were living in each region, how many human inhabitants were in each region, and the levels of degradation of the land and surrounding flora and other fauna due to cacao farming. Included in the assessment of degradation was secondary forests of any age, villages, cultivated fields, roads, pathways, etc. (Bitty, pp. 98-99). Their final assessment:

1) Primate encounters:

  • Within the twenty-three (23) protected areas: five had lost half of their primate species and thirteen (57%) had lost their entire primate population.
  • Each of the twenty three (23) protected areas is characterized, by (at least) one primate local extinction, but most are missing many more primate classifications.
  • Of twelve (12) anthropoid primate species expected within the survey areas, eleven were encountered in at least one protected area.
  • In PAs that had primates, (at least) the same three classifications were always encountered.
  • Two specific species were not encountered in any park or reserve surveyed leading the researchers to the possibility that they are extinct in the wild.
  • Researchers were able to make a direct relationship between the presence of cacao farms and absence of primates within protected areas.

2) Human ‘footprint’:

  • 15 of the protected areas had settlements with an average population of 4,400. Some of the largest settlements had populations over 10,000.
  • Based on interviews of farmers within these PAs, most residents had settled there within the last twelve years (12), which corresponded to a period of political & military unrest in Côte d’Ivoire.
  • Poaching was an additional concern within the PAs – primates are either killed or kept in captivity.

3) Economic degradation:

  • Using a mathematical quotient to define levels of degradation, the researchers found that the levels within sixteen (16) forest reserves exceeded 65%.
  • The majority of forest degradation was a result of cacao farming.
    • Cacao farms were found within 20 protected areas
    • Within the protected areas, between 10% to 100% of the land was converted for cacao farming
    • Cacao makes up 93% of illegally grown agricultural products in PAs (The other crops encountered were subsistence crops – bananas, yams, maize, rice – and miscellaneous vegetables associated with young cacao trees)
    • Approximately 74% (1250 mi2) of the total area of PAs surveyed had been turned into cacao plantations. This is equivalent (thought slightly larger) to the land area of Rhode Island (1045 mi2)
  • Primates habitats and food sources are especially endangered due heavy reliance on full-sun farming technique – removal of all trees – in cacao production. (Bitty, pp. 99-101)

illegal cacao farms

The impact that such illegal farming has on the environment is not new, however with recent trends in chocolate production and a greater, general awareness by the public of ‘fair’ products and the ‘impact’ their goods have, concerns around the razing of forests and loss of habitats are gaining prominence.

Returning to the particular case of Cote d’Ivoire, and the high rate at which this is occurring begs the question: why is this happening? According to the Bitty research group, it goes back to the country’s history. A vast population increase in the last fifty (50) years is a major cause of the expansion into protected areas for settlement, farming, and/or hunting. Part of this growth has occurred due to natural population increases (births), however a larger portion is due to a ‘large influx of migrants’ (Bitty, p. 102) due to the peace and economic prosperity that Côte d’Ivoire experienced between the late 1950s and the early 1990s. The 1970s coco boom started in the southeastern part of Côte d’Ivoire and gradually shifted to the central west and southwestern parts of the country as need to access of land and stronger yields became greater. As previously shared, this expansion was greatly promoted by President Felix Houphouët-Boigny (in office 1960-1993) as the country’s revenue greatly benefited from the taxes on commodity exports, of which cacao provided its greatest profit. As part of the investment in cacao production President Houphouët-Boigny’s government encouraged a process to allow ‘rental’ of land for cacao growing. The government unabashedly allowed migrant and foreign laborers to move into the nation’s forests. Further, in exchange for work, laborers were also allowed to plant their own crops and to sell a portion of the cacao they helped to produce – this created a wasteful cycle in which new labor could only be made available from further migration into the forests and clearing of land. This cycle continued until the government belatedly realized that the forest was a finite resource and began to set aside regions as protected areas (Woods, pp. 645-646).

cacao in hands

However, the death of Houphouët-Boigny in 1993, plunged the country into a tumultuous period (~1993-2011) of political, social, and economic unrest. This included a civil war which caused hundreds of thousands to move into central and southern Côte d’Ivoire from other portions of the country and from neighboring Mali and Burkina Faso. This southward shift was heightened following the contested presidential election of 2010, with many migrants fleeing into neighboring countries or taking up residence adjacent to or within forest reserves and national parks (Cross, p. 44), continuing the deforestation of the land that occurred from the 1960’s-80s. Because of this, Côte d’Ivoire has the highest deforestation rate in sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated loss of 1023mi2 (again, equivalent to the state of Rhode Island) per year (Fairhead and Leach p. 22).

Bitty concludes, “Given the government’s concerns with national security, safeguarding habitat and wildlife inside parks and forest reserves was likely not a high priority; and thousands of migrant’s readily occupied protected areas. Most conservation staff charged with monitoring and protecting fled their parks/reserves and south-moving migrants encountered little – if any – resistance. The result was the rapid establishment of permanent human settlements, an increase in cocoa farming, and an escalation of hunting within the country’s protected areas” (p. 102).

In recent years, the government of Cote d’Ivoire has stabilized and taken steps to remove these ‘illegal residents’ especially as regulations around illegal farming are strengthening.

However, the environmental impacts of cacao farming are still a cause for concern and have not become a part of the government’s focus. It has however gained the attention of various environmental rights groups, researchers, and even chocolate companies. Endangered Species Chocolate is an interesting company who connects consumer advocacy with every purchase of their chocolate. To consumers, they share that “choosing our chocolate is one way you can honor farmers and support sustainable farming practices. We pay a social premium for our ingredients to ensure that farmers are supported and species are protected.” (Endangered Species, 2015). A partner who receives 10% of the proceeds is the African Wildlife Foundation (AWF), which focuses on conservation and extinction avoidance of Africa’s unique species. Though there presence does not currently extend into Côte d’Ivoire, this could change in the future. Further, organizations like the AWF and conscious cacao companies like Endangered Species Chocolate could begin the dialogue on how cacao production and protection of ecosystems could be harmonious.

As for how the biodiversity of the region can be protected in conjunction with the existence of the cacao farms, the importance of these critical areas in ensuring the biodiversity of Côte d’Ivoire has been emphasized, however it the threat of the continual agricultural encroachment of the cacao farms is recognized. And although the government has shifted its focus to removing the farms, the government currently does not have the resources needed to completely halt cacao production and poaching within all of its protected areas (PAs), which is a concern for continual extinction of unique floral and fauna (especially primates) in the future (Bitty, p. 104). Specifically regarding the primates, Bitty et. al shared that the absence of primates in various protected areas directly correlates to the existence of cacao farms and the technique of full sun cacao farming. They continued:

“In contrast, shaded cocoa agroforestry, which does not involve the total removal of trees, has been shown to provide comparable revenues for farmers while preserving elements of habitat critical for primate populations. Several recent studies have tabulated those tree species known to thrive in West and Central African cocoa farms where shaded agroforestry is practiced, and cocoa farmers recently interviewed in Cote d’Ivoire expressed their desire to retain some tree diversity on their farms, noting that certain trees are compatible with cocoa because they help promote soil moisture retention and improve soil fertility.

Studies in Côte d’Ivoire and elsewhere in Africa have demonstrated that cocoa production and biodiversity are not mutually exclusive entities. Going forward, it will be essential to promote policies that do not involve complete deforestation, and we are encouraged by the work of Schroth and Harvey who note, “traditional cocoa agroforests with diverse and structurally complex shade canopies are among the agricultural land uses that are most likely to conserve a significant portion of the original forest biodiversity (2007:2238).” Our suggestion of shade-cocoa farming applies to remaining intact forest outside protected areas, and we emphasize that we are not advocating new agriculture – shaded or otherwise – inside protected areas. For degraded PAs, forest regeneration focusing on native tree species should be encouraged” (Bitty, pp. 104-105).

The issues of illegal farms in Cote d’Ivoire are greater than simply changing the method by which farming occurs, but this is a suggested solution that can be implemented as the government, ecologists, cacao buyers, farmers, etc. work to bring about a solution that is beneficial for all. However history – historical actions, mindsets, policies – as has been shown here, can have a great impact on the present – livelihood, rights, and process – of a country’s inhabitants. Hopefully, Cote d’Ivoire will recognize the opportunity it has to change the way in which the producers of its greatest export are treated; that farmers receive greater financial support and rights to the land; but also recognizes the importance of its ecosystem and how to harmoniously merge cacao production with environmental protection.


Bavier, Joe and Hudson, Dale. “Cash-strapped Ivorian farmers struggle to ready next cocoa crop”. Reuters (Zawya). 13 May 2015. Web. Accessed online on 12 May 2015 <http://www.zawya.com/story/Cashstrapped_Ivorian_farmers_struggle_to_ready_next_cocoa_crop-TR20150513nL5N0Y336IX2/&gt;

Bitty, A. E., Gonedele, S. B., Koffi Bene, J. C., Kouass, P. Q.i and McGraw, W. S. 2015. Cacao farming and primate extirpation inside Cote d’Ivoire’s protected areas. Tropical Conservation Science Vol.8 (1): 95-113. Web. 11 May 2015. <http://tropicalconservationscience.mongabay.com/content/v8/tcs_v8i1_95-113_Bitty.pdf&gt;

Cross, Hannah. Migrants, Borders and Global Capitalism: West African Labour Mobility and EU Borders. New York. Routledge. 2013. Print.

Endangered Species Chocolate. Main website. N.D. Web. 13 May 2015 <http://www.chocolatebar.com/&gt;

Fairhead, James and Leach, Melissa. Reframing Deforestation: Global Analyses and Local Realities: Studies in West Africa. New York. Routledge. 1998. Print.

Gbetibouo, Mathurin and Delgado, Christopher L. 1984. Lessons and Constraints of Export Crop-Led Growth: Cocoa in Ivory Coast. The Political Economy of Ivory Coast. Ed. I. William Zartman, et al. New York. Praeger. Web. 10 May 2015 <http://krishikosh.egranth.ac.in/bitstream/1/2054816/1/MPKV-1257.pdf&gt;

“Ivory Coast patchy rains mainly good for cocoa mid-crop”. Reuters (Africa). 11 May 2015. Web. Accessed online on 12 May 2015 <http://af.reuters.com/article/investingNews/idAFKBN0NW1FY20150511?sp=true&gt;

Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. 2015. Lecture slides: various. Accessed online on 11 May 2015 <https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bZnNSUEVBekRocW8&usp=sharing&gt;

Williams, Eric. Capitalism & Slavery. University of North Carolina Press. 1944. Print. Accessed online: 10 May 2015 <http://www.njstatelib.org/research_library/new_jersey_resources/digital_collection/capitalism_and_slavery/&gt;

Woods, Dwayne. 2003. The tragedy of the cocoa pod: rent-seeking, land and ethnic conflict in Ivory Coast. Journal of Modern African Studies. Vol. 41 (4): 641-655. Web. 11 May 2015 < http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3876357?uid=2134&uid=2494055723&uid=2&uid=70&uid=3&uid=2494055703&uid=60&sid=21106804543803 >

Multimedia resources:

AFP News Agency. Ivory Coast evicts illegal workers from forests. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 July 2013. Web. 12 May 2015. < https://youtu.be/-nvJmrlEfAI&gt;

Cacao consumption and production map. Cocoa Barometer Consortium. Cocoa Barometer 2015. 6 March 2015. Web. 12 May 2015 <http://www.oxfamnovib.nl/Redactie/Downloads/Rapporten/Cocoa_Barometer_2015.pdf&gt;

Cacao in hands. Stock photo. N.D. Web. 13 May 2015 <https://www.google.com/search?q=cacao+in+hands&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ei=n8FTVbCcFdLlsASJtIH4DA&ved=0CAcQ_AUoAQ&biw=1366&bih=657#tbm=isch&q=cacao+hands&gt;

Cacao production chart. International Cocoa Organization. 27 February 2015. Web. 11 May 2015. <http://www.icco.org/about-us/international-cocoa-agreements/cat_view/30-related-documents/46-statistics-production.html&gt;

Endangered Species Chocolate. Our Promise: Endangered Species Chocolate. Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 21 January 2014. Web. 13 May 2015 <https://youtu.be/chsse1OUk4w&gt;

Illegal cacao plants & beans (p. 100): Bitty, A. E., Gonedele, S. B., Koffi Bene, J. C., Kouass, P. Q.i and McGraw, W. S. 2015. Cacao farming and primate extirpation inside Cote d’Ivoire’s protected areas. Tropical Conservation Science Vol.8 (1): 95-113. Web. 11 May 2015. <http://tropicalconservationscience.mongabay.com/content/v8/tcs_v8i1_95-113_Bitty.pdf&gt;

Protected Areas – Primate Study (p. 99): Ibid.

Triangular Trade Route photo. Martin, Carla. “Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food”. 2015. Lecture 6 – Slavery, abolition, and forced labor: slide 6. Accessed online on 11 May 2015 <https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_kGt6Sj1X5bZnNSUEVBekRocW8&usp=sharing>


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