How Chocolate Stimulates Taste Buds, Forests, and Communities


This World Chocolate Day learn about how USAID’s HEARTH activities connect local cacao farmers to international corporations

Chocolate can be even better when you know where it comes from. You may know that chocolate comes from the beans of cacao. The fruit’s bitter beans—through a culinary alchemy of fermenting, drying, roasting, and melting—are transformed into sweet, velvety chocolate.

You may also know that the cacao plant is native to Central and South America, where Indigenous Peoples have valued the cacao bean for centuries as both a commodity and as its own currency. But what do you and other chocolate lovers know about the communities that grow cacao today?

Cacao is a multi-billion dollar industry cultivated globally. Many of the people who grow cacao are small-scale producers like Emile Gaston, a 75-year-old tree nursery technician and cacao farmer in Madagascar who acknowledges, “cacao is an opportunity to develop my region.”

However, it can be a challenge to connect smallholder farmers growing heritage varieties of cacao to international buyers seeking exactly that—premium quality cacao. USAID is helping to bridge this divide.

Gabensis, Papua New Guinea: Cocoa Nursery Establishment, Maurice Knight for USAID

“Cacao is an opportunity to develop my region.”

USAID, through our Health, Ecosystems, and Agriculture for Resilient Thriving Societies (HEARTH) program, is tackling these challenges in a big way. USAID recognizes that the goals of conserving biodiversity and critical ecosystems, and improving the well-being of local communities are inextricably linked. Humans support nature, and nature supports humans.

HEARTH aims to accomplish these goals by working with the private sector to co-invest in sustainable farming practices or alternative livelihoods. Private sector partners then build on USAID’s programming and initiatives to further advance biodiversity conservation, climate and health priorities, and global food security through the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative.

Currently, HEARTH is working with cacao farmers in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Madagascar, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana. These countries account for over 70% of the global cacao market. Private sector partners include Akesson’s Organic, Beyond Good, Blommer Chocolate Company, Costco Wholesale, Guittard Chocolate, Lindt & Sprüngli AG, Mars Wrigley, Mondelēz International, Nestlé, Olam Food Ingredients (ofi), The Hershey Company, Outspan Limited PNG, and Sahanala.

On World Chocolate Day in 2021, USAID made its first HEARTH award to the TSIRO Alliance in Madagascar—a five-year partnership between USAID, Catholic Relief Services, and a group of the above private-sector companies—to strengthen cacao and spice supply chains while conserving biodiversity and improving the well-being of smallholder farmers and their communities.

So far, TSIRO has established 24 tree nurseries, planted over 672,000 trees, and restored over 2,400 hectares of forests and farmlands—the size of nearly 6,000 American football fields. The program has leveraged over $913,000 from private sector partners and generated over $1.2 million in sales from farmers.  

HEARTH activities help conserve biodiversity, as well as better manage and restore key landscapes such as forests, grasslands, and peatlands. They also increase the resilience of marginalized communities facing the pervasive threat of climate change. 

Ibu Hamsia, a 50-year-old farmer in Indonesia, can attest to the impact of climate change—in the form of increased rainfall and humidity—on her crops. “The growth and spread of fungi on cacao plants … this causes cacao plants to be susceptible to pests and diseases,” she explains.

Ibu's family relies on cacao to make a living. “It was from farming cacao that me and my husband were able to get additional income to pay for anything, including my children’s education and other expenses,” she says.

Understanding the origin of the cacao in your chocolate is the first step to understanding how your purchasing decisions impact communities. It is not always easy—chocolate is a globalized market with many trading partners of buyers, sellers, and processors. Luckily, the challenge of tracing cacao through the supply chain can be made simpler.

“There are no middlemen. The beans are bought by the fermentary and directly supply the exporter,” says Victor Ganguly, Papua New Guinea business manager for ofi , a company that has been supporting farming communities through a traceability and sustainability initiative known as Cocoa Compass. The partnership is between Outspan PNG Limited, a subsidiary of the international food and agri-business Olam International, and farmers in the YUS Conservation Area, the oldest conservation area of Papua New Guinea.

This program strives to be inclusive of women farmers like Yanam Chris, a farmer in Bugabuang, Papua New Guinea. “Money,” she explains, “brings us store food and clothes and we are able to pay school fees and medical fees.”

Yanam Chris, farmer / Penelope Aimari for USAID

The full scope of HEARTH activities, however, goes well beyond cacao farming. In addition to environmental sustainability and improved livelihoods in the cacao sector, the 17 HEARTH activities are also improving the sustainability of sea cucumber and seaweed farming in Madagascar; developing ecotourism in the Sundarbans region of Bangladesh; launching conservation educational entertainment in East Africa; and partnering with coffee growers to reduce poaching and deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

All HEARTH activities also develop rigorous plans for measuring and monitoring their efforts. Through formal research activities and more informal peer-to-peer sharing, HEARTH is an opportunity for the global development community to learn from experience and better understand how to serve communities while also benefiting the environment. In the first two years of implementation, among many other achievements,  it is estimated that the HEARTH portfolio has planted around 2.6 million trees, sequestering around 125,000 tons of CO2, the equivalent of removing around 30,000 cars from the road for one year.

By combining our partners’ resources and skills, USAID’s integrated programming increases investment and amplifies outcomes, helping communities conserve nature. In doing so, growing cacao can be a win-win for both communities and the environment.

So let’s do what we can to support the communities that are committed to sustaining nature and our sweet cravings, not just today on World Chocolate Day, but every day.

Cacao beans in Ecuador are ripe and ready for processing into chocolate

Cacao beans in Ecuador are ripe and ready for processing into chocolate. / Satre Comunicaciones

ABOUT THE AUTHORS: Kelvin Gorospe is a former American Association for the Advancement of Science Biodiversity Fellow in USAID’s Biodiversity Division. Celina Szymanski is a former communications associate with USAID’s now-closed Sharing Environment and Energy Knowledge project.

*This story was originally published July 7, 2022, and has since been updated on LinkedIn.