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How can eating chocolate protect birds?

A driver of deforestation, chocolate may be even more of a guilty pleasure than you thought. But in Indonesia, one cocoa collective is protecting forests while lifting local people out of poverty.

By Jessica Law

What’s destroying our rainforests? You’ve probably heard of the main culprits: logging, cattle farming and palm oil plantations get a lot of press. But you may not know that your lunchtime chocolate bar also takes a heavy toll on the environment. In fact, this year cocoa production was listed in the top eight commodities driving deforestation in the tropics.

This may sound surprising, especially since cocoa is often marketed as a tropical plant harvested from within the forest itself. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Local farmers, driven by poverty, frequently fell forest to create intensive cocoa plantations. This threat is hard to track or control because it is not driven by a single company clearing large areas, but numerous smallholders encroaching gradually year on year. In short, rainforests are experiencing death by a thousand cuts.

Chocolate lovers may be disheartened by this news – but there is another way. The farmers of Makarti Jaya village in Sulawesi, Indonesia are part of an exciting new initiative that is lifting them out of poverty while protecting the verdant Randangan forest.

Within this forest can be found two stunning species of hornbill: the Knobbed Hornbill Rhyticeros cassidix and Sulawesi Hornbill Rhabdotorrhinus exarhatus, both Vulnerable species found only in Sulawesi. Hornbills play an important part in the culture of the island; the people of Gorontalo believe that they protect humans and ward off evil spirits. However, the hornbills cannot protect themselves from habitat destruction. Without access to agricultural training, local people used to get low yields from their cocoa plantations. Pests destroyed the pods, and the excessive use of chemical fertilizer sapped the soil of its nutrients. It seemed the only option was fresh land.

Concerned by this encroachment, in 2015 Burung Indonesia (BirdLife Partner) started researching new ways for villagers to make a living without harming the forest. Cocoa wasn’t the only option on the table, but in the end, it turned out to be the best solution – as long as it was farmed in a different way from before. The following year Burung Indonesia, working hand in hand with BirdLife Asia and the Indonesian Government, invited six villages (including Makarti Jaya) to take part in a new agroforestry scheme.

This initiative has gone on to transform both landscapes and lives. Trained and empowered by the new Learning and Business Centre, farmers now plant native trees and cocoa shrubs alongside food crops, allowing livestock to loll in the shade beneath the branches. The mosaic of different species forms its own self-sustaining mini-ecosystem. Animal dung and cocoa waste become organic fertilizer, and a new “pod-wrapping” technique has reduced pest attacks by 90%.

This breakthrough has increased yields and greatly reduced the need for artificial pesticides. In return for these benefits, farmers must agree to forego hunting, logging and the excessive use of agricultural chemicals – and, above all, never expand their land. Thankfully, they no longer need to. Not only are they selling more cocoa, but they are also getting double the price for their beans. In Makarti Jaya, the quality is so high that it has attracted the attention of Fossa Chocolate – a boutique chocolatier that crafts single-source chocolate from scratch.

“We were impressed by the quality of the Makarti Jaya cacao,” says Jay Chua, founder of Fossa Chocolate. “It was well fermented, dried and sorted, fully showcasing the techniques of the farmers.”

A far cry from cocoa that, up until three years ago, did not even meet the Indonesian National Standard. In March this year, Fossa Chocolate released a bar made exclusively from Makarti Jaya cacao. Fossa chose to call the bar ‘Burung’ (‘bird’ in Indonesian) to celebrate the endemic birds of Sulawesi who benefit from this programme.

“After optimising our roast profile for the Makarti Jaya cacao, we managed to bring out delicious olive, tamarind and raspberries character in the chocolate,” says Chua. If this description is making your mouth water, you’re not the only one – and while you enjoy the delicious taste, you can take comfort in the fact that the chocolate you are eating benefits both birds and people. As the world wakes up to the need for economic change, this project is a fantastic example of business and nature working hand in hand.

Buy the ‘Burung’ bar at

Image credit: © Burung Indonesia

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