Cocoa Profile

Cocoa is mainly used in the production of chocolate and other confectionery but cocoa butter is also present in beauty products such as soaps and moisturisers. The EU and US are by far the largest importers and consumers of cocoa, taking a combined 75 per cent of all imports (UN COMTRADE 2016).

Cocoa has historically been an important driver of deforestation in West Africa, where most global production is concentrated. In the past, cocoa was also a key factor in the clearance of Brazil’s Atlantic forest. Recently it has also been responsible for the opening up of large tracts of forest on the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia (Brack & Bailey 2013). Traditionally, most cocoa is produced by smallholder farmers, who also clear the forest to make way for the crop. Small traders may also be involved as middlemen. The rest of the supply chain is highly commercialised and industrialised, however, and nearly all production is for export. Just four agribusiness giants are reckoned to process 40 per cent of global supply (ibid.).

In recent years, a supply shortage has led to rapidly rising cocoa prices, shaking up the industry in a way which poses new threats to forests. ‘Big Ag’ is moving into cocoa production, replacing the smallholder model with large new plantations. Projected profits are forecast to outstrip even palm oil (Financial Times 2014). With a dearth of suitable land in some traditional production zones, often these plantations are being developed in new countries, commonly at the expense of forests.

There are well-documented illegalities relating to both smallholder cocoa production and newer large-scale plantations. Weak law enforcement and civil strife have led to widespread illegal conversion of protected forests for production of cocoa and coffee in Côte d’Ivoire during the last 15 years. In some cases, corrupt officials have been directly involved in this process (IRIN News 2013). There is also a long history of widespread illegality in the conversion of forest reserve areas for cocoa production in Ghana, the region’s second largest primary cocoa producer (England 1993).

In Peru, one of the largest single tracts of recent deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon forests has resulted from conversion of forest for a cocoa plantation by a company called United Cacao. The project is mired in allegations of serious illegalities by both government agencies and NGOs, all of which the company denies. In May 2016, the Peruvian forest authority stated that the company had failed to obtain a required environmental approval before starting to clear forest, while in July 2016 new maps released by the Ministry of Agriculture confirmed that 92 per cent of the land is zoned as Forest Production, meaning it cannot legally be used for agricultural purposes (Mongabay 2016).

In Papua New Guinea, some of the ‘Special Agricultural Business Leases’ (SABL’s) covering vast tracts of tropical forest and found by a Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry to have been illegally issued were for cocoa plantations. It is suspected that many such leases were obtained solely as a cover to cut and sell the tropical trees, however, so it is uncertain if any cocoa will ever actually be planted (Lawson 2014).

Image:Irene Scott for AusAID


UN COMTRADE. 2016. Official import data for 2015, analysed by Earthsight.

Brack, D. & Bailey, R. 2013. Ending Global Deforestation: Policy Options for Consumer Countries. Chatham House, September 2013.

Financial Times. 2014. Plantation groups eye cocoa farming. 19th June 2014.

Mongabay. 2016. Huge cacao plantation in Peru illegally developed on forest-zoned land. 16th July 2016.

Lawson, S. 2014, Consumer Goods and Deforestation: An Analysis of the Extent and Nature of Illegality in Forest Conversion for Agriculture and Timber Plantations. Forest Trends, September 2014.

This summary was last updated in September 2016. For more recent information, please see news on cocoa here.