How Chocolate Could Save the Peruvian Amazon

Cacao, cocoa beans grown in the Peruvian Amazon for chocolate

How Chocolate Could Save the Peruvian Amazon…

I recently got the privilege to travel to the “Biodiversity Capital” of Peru for work. “What a lucky girl,” you think to yourself. “I wonder what she does for work?” If I had to describe what I do in one sentence, I would say I am a freelance environmental conservationist – I help protect forests, ecosystems and biodiversity. My last mission was to travel to Tambopata National Reserve and the Buhuaja-Sonene National Park, which is home to over 50% of Peru’s mammal and bird species. It is the natural habitat for many endangered and vulnerable species, including the giant armadillo, black caiman, harpy eagle, giant otter and jaguar.

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Although these are government-protected areas under the jurisdiction of Peru’s environmental ministry, the forest cover in Tambopata and Buhuaja-Sonene is shrinking, with an estimated 1,189 hectares lost every year. The construction of the South Interoceanic Highway has accelerated gold mining, wood extraction, and slash-and-burn agriculture.

These devastating activities lead to severe consequences such as:

  1. Mercury poisoning: illegal gold miners in the region first deforest the river bank to help the mineral extraction process, and then use mercury, which helps bind the gold flakes together. The mercury is then consumed by aquatic animals living in the rivers and ends up poisoning all life forms that rely on food from the river.
  2. Climate change: when forests are cut down, carbon absorption ceases and the carbon stored in leaves, branches, trunks, roots and soil is released into the atmosphere as CO2 (if wood is burned or left to rot). Avoiding deforestation helps avoid greenhouse gas emissions. In other words, protecting forests plays a key role in fighting climate change.
  3. Lower ecological resilience: in ecology, resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to respond to a disturbance by resisting damage and recovering quickly. In other words, it’s the ecosystem’s ability to maintain balance and return to functioning normally after a perturbation.

Why are forests cut down? Because humans have created possession over land, meaning people who own land want to make money off their land, and they currently don’t make money by having standing forests. So, landowners in this region, who must provide for their families and make ends meet, cut down forests to:

  1. mine gold;
  2. harvest and sell wood;
  3. create pastures and raise cattle;
  4. plant agriculture crops (banana, papaya, soy, corn, etc.)

Forests compete with other land-uses because landowners do not have many alternatives to make ends meet. Farmers typically aren’t getting fair prices because of a lack of organization and logistics, resulting in reduced market access. Lower return to the farmer leads to less investment back into the land, which leads to poor land management. Poor land management results in soil infertility, land degradation and lower production yields (for example, less kilograms of corn per hectare of production than properly managed fields). Farmers are then forced to cut and burn down forests in search of healthy soil in order to grow next year’s crop, and put food on their family’s table. A vicious cycle is created where the primary forest is slowly cut down, destroying important habitat for biodiversity and contributing to climate change.

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So what is being done to reduce the pressures of deforestation on the national parks? A successful model that is being implemented by the local NGO (non-governmental organization), AIDER, is to provide the local people with livelihood alternatives. In other words, it means to provide local people with ways to make ends meet without compromising the primary forest. For Althelia Climate Fund, it means investing in high value cocoa agroforestry systems, and transforming degraded lands into highly productive lands with a larger return per hectare. When farmers are given the opportunity to plant their lands with cocoa-based agroforestry systems, their profit per hectare increases. Interested farmers can join the local cocoa cooperative if they agree to no further deforestation of primary forests. The cooperative provides farmers with quality cocoa plants, technical assistance and organic fertilizers to ensure productivity and ‘route-to-market’. This, in turn, ensures that the beans are exported to buyers willing to pay a price premium for the organic, fair-trade, and deforestation-free cocoa beans.

baby cacao

“Great!” you think… “but how do you make sure that all these claims are actually happening and not just ‘green-washing’???” That’s where I come into the picture. The strategy is to geo-reference all the farmers’ lands and use high-resolution satellite imagery to monitor the forest cover in near real-time. Farmers who are compliant and do not deforest will receive incentive payments (i.e. price premiums for their good behavior).

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This emerging market is called Deforestation-Free Supply Chains. Many of the largest food and beverage companies (think Coca-Cola, Walmart, McDonald’s), known as the Consumer Goods Forum, have made pledges to eliminate deforestation from their supply chains by 2020. This can only be achieved if commodity suppliers have transparency all the way to the farmer to understand what is happening on their fields. This can only by achieved with smart technology to understand and unravel the complexities of commodity procurement systems.

Cacao Farm

Just like any emerging market, there will be many challenges ahead; however, this demand-side conservation strategy has large potential to reduce the pressure on existing tropical forests that sequester millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide and provide habitat to millions of plants and animals. It was a real pleasure to visit the Tambopata National Reserve, and I highly recommend visiting the park for nature enthusiasts. The region has dozens of professionally managed eco-tourism companies to take you zip-lining through the beautiful jungle canopy, or rafting down the river observing the famous birds, river otters and caimans. You can also visit indigenous families to learn about their unique traditions, foods and culture.

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How to get there?  Catch a flight from Lima or Cusco to Puerto Madonaldo.

Where to stay?  Yakari Eco Lodge or Pousada Amazonas are both good options.

How long?  Anywhere between 3-5 nights will allow you to enjoy all the attractions while soaking up the rejuvenating peaceful energy of the Peruvian Amazon.

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