When I joined the Wedgetail team I was instantly bombarded with cacao.

Greg co-hosts a chocolate-themed Youtube channel, Cam offered me an array of sustainable chocolate samples when we first met, and Lisa drops cacao facts like a rapper spits rhymes.

I’m honest enough to admit, however, that I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. Why cacao? Why not another commodity? And why a commodity at all? And what is nature-positive cacao?

Fast-forward a few weeks and not only do I get it, but I’m a certified member of the Cacao Fan Club, and, I’m here to explain why.

Cacao in context

Cacao is a football-shaped fruit with a hard exterior shell that grows on the Theobroma cacao tree. It comes in a rainbow of colours, from yellows to greens to reds, and once you crack it open, you’ll find about 30 to 60 beans covered in a pulpy white fruit. These beans have a variety of uses — and have since 1500 BC — but are most often used to make chocolate.

And here’s where the facts get super interesting: a whopping 95% of cacao is grown in the tropics by farmers with less than 5 hectares of land. There are about 4.5 million of these small cacao farms nestled in the ‘cacao belt’, between 20 degrees north and south of the Equator, employing about 6 million workers. 

In its entirety, the cacao sector underpins the livelihoods of nearly 50 million people. 

And while 1-5 hectares is not a lot of land, the cacao sector is not insignificant. These farms cumulatively cover more than 12 million hectares, which is 120,000 square kilometres, or the size of North Korea.

Cacao cracked open on To’ak’s Piedra De Plata reserve. Source: Mark Fox.

A broken system

Cacao might be grown in the sunny tropics, but the sector has a darker side that mustn’t be ignored.

In the face of financial pressures, opaque supply chains, unstable economic conditions, degraded land and the broader threat of climate change, many cacao farmers have resorted to clearing their farmland to grow cacao in full sunlight. This trend of deforestation is not insignificant, nor has it gone unnoticed or unreported. 

It would be unfair, however, to simply villainise cacao farmers and call it a day, when most are simply doing their best to provide for their families in a harsh environment within a broken system. If we want farmers to change their behaviour, halting and reversing deforestation, we need new systems and better incentives.

Nature-positive cacao

Cacao first developed in forests in the Americas, which means it likes the shade and dislikes wind. This is exciting because it means, thousands of years later, cacao can be productively grown in tropical forests, surrounded by native flora and fauna. This technique is called agroforestry — and while it does see smaller yields in the short term, it results in on-par yields in the long term, with the added and invaluable benefits of soil health and tree longevity. 

And the benefits don’t end there. Because cacao is a tropical crop, it’s generally grown in or near rainforests, which means agroforestry techniques have the added bonus of conserving and regenerating Earth’s vital ecosystems. 

In fact, most of the tropical rainforest that we need to conserve and regenerate already have cacao in them. If cacao farms become nature-positive — meaning they are inherently restoring rather than over utilising natural resources — they are quite literally positioned to help reverse biodiversity loss and fight climate change. 

De-pulped cacao pods are prepared for Zorzal’s drying and fermentation process. Source: Nettie Atkisson.

And it gets better and birdier too

In 2021, Smithsonian scientists demonstrated that cacao farms with 30-40% canopy cover and diverse shade trees could support as many generalist bird species as undisturbed forests. This research now forms the basis for a Bird-Friendly Cacao certification, which we hope will enable the creation of a premium market for environmentally-friendly chocolate that consumers are willing to pay a premium for. 

Our hopes are bolstered by the fact this is what happened in the coffee sector. Back in the late-1990s, Smithsonian scientists developed a Bird Friendly certification for coffee, and today, there’s enough consumer demand to support 5,100 Bird-Friendly farmers in 11 countries to grow 34 million pounds of coffee annually.

Enter Wedgetail

Environmental change often starts with a grassroots effort, and this is already playing out in cacao. However, in order to accelerate these efforts, we need to incentivise farmers to make the switch to agroforestry and validate new economic models for nature-positive cacao.

This is where Wedgetail comes in. 

Our mission is to finance the conservation and restoration of biodiversity — and we’re already financing five nature-positive cacao projects, with plans to bring many more into our portfolio.

As the year progresses, we’re also planning to support farmers, sourcers and producers across an array of commodities that keep forests standing around the world.

So, if you’re dabbling in cacao, or nature-positive in general, drop us a line. We’d love to support you in your endeavours. 

And welcome, all, to the Cacao Fan Club. 

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