How Tree Shade and Bat Poo are Helping Grow Earth-Friendly Chocolate

Why you should care

Because bird sh*t and bat sh*t could make your next Kit Kat better sh*t for the planet.

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On their 4-acre farm near Ekok in central Cameroon, Ekono Ferdinand and his family are hand-harvesting the year’s cacao crop. In the shade of the mighty ceiba and ficus trees and accompanied by the cheerful song of paradise flycatchers and the haunting cries of great turacos, they slice the ripe yellow pods open lengthwise and — munching on the sweet milky flesh as they go — remove the bitter beans that will later become chocolate. Later that evening, they wash off the sticky, sugary flesh in a nearby stream, to the distant calling of a troop of chimpanzees. “It’s a truly magical place,” says Luke L. Powell, a biologist at Durham University in the U.K. and the director of Biodiversity Initiative who’s researching how to balance biodiversity and cacao productivity.

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Luke L. Powell stands in a “cacao graveyard,” a pile of harvested cacao pods.

Source Luke L. Powell, Biodiversity Initiative

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Workers at a Biodiversity Initiative banding station.

Source Crinan Jarrett, Biodiversity Initiative

You may have read about the rampant deforestation associated with the chocolate industry in Ivory Coast and Ghana, the world’s largest producers of cacao, but nearby Cameroon’s traditional shade-grown cacao — cacao planted in the shade of established trees — offers emphatic evidence that chocolate can be good for you and the planet. “The farms act as a protective buffer for the primary forest,” explains Powell, while the forest provides the farmers with invaluable natural pest control.

Despite the fact that Powell spends most of his time in the country hunting for poo, he has fallen under Cameroon’s spell.

The problem: Even in 2018, there is still no reliable way of telling whether your sweet indulgence comes from somewhere warm and fuzzy like Ekono’s farm, or from an ecological train wreck. Fortunately, Powell and his colleagues at the Congo Basin Institute and the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture are on the case.

By running bird and bat feces through a DNA sequencer (a hit-or-miss process) back in Durham, they are building up a detailed food web of “who eats whom,” which will ultimately allow them to identify keystone tree species vital to the forest’s survival, and to work out exactly which birds and bats eat cacao pests.

3 hipposideros ruber (noack's roundleaf bat)

Noack’s roundleaf bat (hipposideros ruber).

Source Crinan Jarrett, Biodiversity Initiative

11 ispidina picta (african pygmy kingfisher)

African pygmy kingfisher (ispidina picta).

Source Crinan Jarrett, Biodiversity Initiative

Despite the fact that Powell spends most of his time in the country hunting for poo, he has fallen under Cameroon’s spell. Its volcanoes, beaches and people are all top-notch and — because farms like Ekono’s have kept deforestation down — it’s a nature lover’s dream, where elephants, pangolins and African grey parrots abound. The “coolest,” he says, are the grey-necked rockfowl — birds that “skulk around the forest floor like ghosts.” Not to mention the gigantic hammer-headed bat, which looks like a cross between a camel and a bat and whose loud honking you can hear from a mile away. (Unfortunately, the biodiversity has also made Cameroon a hot spot for ivory poachers and traffickers seeking species that have all but disappeared from countries to the west.)

The success of shade-grown coffee in Asia and the Americas, where scientific research has shown farmers how to improve yields and quality, gives Twix-loving Powell cause for optimism. At the moment, he can’t say which shade trees African cacao farmers should plant and what percentage of shade cover they should aim for to help both wildlife and farmers, he says, but “by the end of next year, we will be able to give some very clear guidelines.”

Guidelines that will hopefully serve to stave off further deforestation and could — if the big chocolate firms come to the party — even result in reforestation in Ivory Coast and Ghana. “Shade-grown cacao plants can remain productive for many decades,” says Powell, “compared to 20 or so years in full sun.

“… It’s a no-brainer.”

Go There: Cameroonian Cacao Growers

Ekok is accessed — via a one-hour drive and a further hourlong hike — from the sizable town of Ayos, which has a decent hotel and is only 2.5 hours from Yaoundé. There are plenty of cacao farms around town too.

Limbe, a laid-back beach paradise in the shadow of 13,250-foot Mount Cameroon, boasts a wonderful botanical garden and is surrounded by cacao farms. Unfortunately, recent rebel activity means it’s probably best avoided.

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