GAINESVILLE, Fla.- The hidden world of chocolate and the effects of its production and consumption in tropical cultures was under scrutiny Sunday in an open discussion hosted by a panel of local experts.
The panel met at the Florida Museum of Natural History to compliment Chocolate: The Exhibition, a nationally touring display. Main topics of discussion were the ecological and cultural implications of chocolate production.
The process of farming cacao, the plant from which chocolate is processed, provides an opportunity to preserve the rainforest and also produce a cash crop, according to panel member Jack Putz, a professor of botany at the University of Florida. The plant must be grown in the shade, and thus can be cultivated in the humid tropical areas in which it thrives without clear cutting of protective rainforest canopies. This leads to biodiversity and is less destructive to the native environment than other tropical crops.
“In thinking about the compatibility, one has to consider the alternatives to other plantation crops,” Putz said.
Encouraging production for overseas trade is not an easy answer, however, according to Allan Burns, professor of anthropology and an expert in Central American cultures. The production of cacao is simply not lucrative enough.
“Cacao is being edged out by more profitable crops,” he said.
Burns thought that preservation of local culture was the best hope for encouraging cacao production. Cacao is used extensively in Mayan culture in both food and drink. It is used to make mole sauce and also to prepare a hot drink traditionally consumed at weddings and during the Day of the Dead celebration in early November. Ancient cacao orchards often mark family lineages and clan ties. Burns encouraged everyone to help support local products.
“I recommend you buy some mole at the supermarket and if you have friends that go to Mexico, have them bring you back some tortillas made from cacao and that will help contribute to the local market,” he said.
Chocolate production is not always sweet, however. A story produced by the BBC in August of 2002 exposed child slavery practices on cacao plantations in West Africa, the birthplace of 70 percent of the world’s chocolate. Practices like this can be avoided by consumers demanding that their chocolate be certified fair-trade grown, according to the panel.
According to Putz, fair-trade certification systems are working in South America, but are harder to establish in bigger markets, such as in Africa, without consumer demand. Fair-trade is also limited to policing labor practices alone.
“Fair trade doesn’t address the ecological issues,” Putz said. “What’s needed is other forms of certification that can address biodiversity.”
Panel leader and forest resources and conservation expert Karen Kainer agreed.
“Save the Earth- it’s the only planet with chocolate,” she said.