A few years ago, my parents gave me what would become one of my favorite sweatshirts: it’s yellow, depicts a smiling penguin, and bears the words “Save the planet. It’s the only one with chocolate.” This saying, which I’ve seen on various memes (and church billboards!) since then, has always made me smile. I’ve carried these words with me, and they were present in my mind when I visited a cacao farm in Vietnam this past summer.
It was late July, rainy season in the Mekong Delta. After five weeks in Southeast Asia, we were not yet accustomed to the heat and humidity. For better or for worse, there had been minimal rain during our travels, and the sun was shining on the day that we made the trek out to Chu Lau’s cacao farm. The farm was in a remote village in Southern Vietnam, and so accompanied by our translator, we traveled over an hour to reach our small cacao farm.
We had gotten out of the car earlier in the village because the car couldn’t safely get through the dirt road. We walked down the road bright, vibrant tropical flowers and tall trees to either side. Chu Lau, which translates to Uncle Lau, and his wife greeted us enthusiastically; they loved sharing their passion and livelihood. The chocolate aroma permeated the farm, and we were instantly (and pleasantly!) overwhelmed with the scent as we entered the property. The cacao beans were fermenting and drying nearby, and I couldn’t wait to examine the sun-dried beans closer.
Yet before I could contemplate the beans too long, our hosts called us over to the nearest of the irrigation streams that wound their way around the farm. The streams were filled with a few varieties of fish, and Chu Lau had caught one shortly before we arrived. It was to be a part of our lunch, homemade by Chu Lau’s wife: grilled fish and fresh spring rolls.
After a photo op with the fish out of water, we made our way back into the cacao farm.
For a chocolate lover like me – or any nature lover, it was paradise. I had seen pictures of cacao trees before this visit, but in real life, they were more beautiful, colorful and vibrant than I could have imagined. Before we had too much time to admire the trees or the pods, we were derailed by the majestic coconut trees, and easily convinced to try fresh coconut.
As Chu Lau climbed the tall ladder to cut down a coconut for each of us, we continued to marvel at all the farm offered. The cacao trees were relatively new to the land, and they were thriving; they were shaded by a canopy of beautiful coconut trees, bread fruit, and, a little bit further away, banana trees. As we walked, our feet crunched on top of fallen cacao leaves, providing a natural mulch to the forest ground. It was like music to my ears.
The rest of the day was just as magical. We enjoyed the fresh coconut water, relished the new taste of the white cacao pulp (often called baba) that surrounds the cacao beans, and luxuriated in our delicious lunch (accompanied by a bottle of homemade cacao liquor).
Of all of the things that I tried and learned, however, what stuck out to me most was the sustainable practices with which Chu Lau and his family grow and harvest cacao. I supported this, and was thrilled they were engaging in these practices, but I was curious about the greater impact of these sustainable agricultural practices on cacao farms.
According to the Center for Strategic & International Studies, Chu Lau’s family is one of 5 million households that farm cacao as cash crop; they make up just a few of the 40-50 million people for whom sustainable cacao provides a livelihood. Yet the threats to sustainable cacao production are numerous, while the benefits are high. Agroforestry, which integrates agricultural methods into a forest’s balance, is strongly recommended in order to best benefit the farmer, the land, and the cacao buyer. These were the practices that Chu Lau and his family used.
The biodiversity that I admired in Vietnam improves the quality of cacao. Cacao is a shade crop, which means that it appreciates tall native crops as canopy for the cacao trees. These trees, such as other fruit trees (ie coconut, breadfruit), or even trees that provide rubber or timber, ensure that farmers have multiple avenues for income, as well as increasing the number of native creatures that will naturally pollinate the crops and feast on cacao pests so that fewer if any pesticides are needed. The biodiversity helps in other ways: it makes it harder for pests and disease to spread from one cacao tree to another, while also nourishing the soil so that it remains nutrient rich and healthy.
The bonus? Biodiverse farms like Chu Lau’s act as “buffer zones” between the rainforest and developed areas, supplying a natural habitat for animals, specifically during migration. Shade plantations allow migrating birds and animals move between forests. Win-win-win for everyone.
This synergy is critical for the long term survival of cacao as well as our planet. Research by International Institute for Environment and Development found that 80% of deforestation is due to a demand for commodities, including beef, palm oil, soya and cocoa. In an Confectionary News post, Rachel Aurthur reported that illegal cacao farms are popping up in protected areas in Cote d’Ivoire, degrading much of the protected forest, and in some cases, eliminating entire primate populations. With our chocolate appetite at an all time high, researchers are going back to the amazon to grow cacao, and deforestation is increasing dramatically. These sustainable agricultural practices that Chu Lau and his family practice that are outlined above are key as we think about the future. They increase biodiversity and our ecosystem’s resilience, and they are vital to keeping our planet healthy. And we as consumers can make difference with our wallets. When you buy your chocolate (or other food, or any product), look for terms like Rainforest Alliance Certification, Fair Trade, or Direct Trade, which goes further and often includes sustainable agricultural practices. Know where your food is sourced. Laughing Gull Chocolates, for example, uses direct trade chocolate and other ethically sourced ingredients. Our purchasing power can change the world, so let’s start saving it. After all, as my sweatshirt’s penguin knows, it’s the only world with chocolate.