Nigerian cocoa farmers are relocating into protected portions of a forest reserve that is home to endangered species like African forest elephants as the demand for chocolate across the world rises.
In conservation areas of Omo Forest Reserve, a protected tropical rainforest located 135 kilometers (84 miles) northeast of the coastal city of Lagos in southwest Nigeria, The Associated Press repeatedly observed farmers harvesting cocoa beans over the course of two visits and several days, despite the work being prohibited in those areas.
According to trade and corporate records, as well as interviews with over 20 farmers, five authorized buying agents, and two brokers who work within the reserve, some of the biggest cocoa traders in the world buy cocoa from the conservation zone.
The traders provide Nigerian cocoa to some of the biggest chocolate producers in the world, such as Ferrero and Mars Inc., but it’s unclear if the cocoa used in the confections they produce—like Snickers, M&Ms, Butterfinger, and Nutella—comes from deforested areas of the Omo Forest Reserve.
Mars and Ferrero list farming sources on their websites that are close to or overlap with the forest but do not provide specific locations.
Kaseem Olaniyi acknowledges he farms illegally in the conservation zone after moving there in 2014 from a neighbouring state.
He says, “We know that where we are (farming) is a reserved area, but when we are done, everyone will go back to their villages to start up a business.”
For him illegal cocoa farming is essential “I chose cocoa farming because I needed to survive and, “it was what my father did for a living”.
Farmers say they move into protected areas of the reserve because their cocoa trees in other parts of the West African country are aging and not producing as much.
Conservationists also point to the world’s increasing demand for chocolate.
Emmanuel Olabode, Project Manager from the Nigeria Conservative Foundation, Omo Forest says.
“The project work here is very important. It is crucial to conservation because for the fact that this is one of the remaining viable habitats that we can have, where we have forest elephants. And if we are not careful and the entire area is degraded, then we won’t have elephants again. So, it is very important for conservation”.
The government in Ogun state, which owns the forest, said in a statement to AP that the “menace of cocoa farming” in the reserve dates back decades and that “all the illegal farmers were forcefully evicted” in 2007 before they found their way back.
The farmers have been ordered not to start new farms, and those who spoke with AP said they are complying.
But forest guards said new farms are sprouting up in remote areas that are difficult to detect.
They told AP that previous arrests have done little to stop the farmers from returning and that has led to a sense of futility when they encounter illegal farming.
The rangers — who work for the government’s conservation partner, the nonprofit Nigerian Conservation Foundation — and forest guards who are employed by the state government both told AP that lax government enforcement has made combating cocoa expansion a challenge.
“What makes the project work difficult is the fact that we are faced with a number of threats while carrying out our activities. You know, we are faced with threats from logging activities, threats from poaching, and expansion of farming and community settlements. So that’s really… they’re big issues here because it’s undermining conservation efforts” explains Olabode.
According to conservation officials, the 650 square kilometer (250 square mile) conservation zone is the only important rainforest in southwest Nigeria that is still standing.
In order for Nigeria to fulfill its commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, these forests are essential for removing carbon from the atmosphere.
In addition to combating climate change, BirdLife International has classified the forest as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area because it supports important populations of at least 75 different bird species.
In June, the European Union, which imports the most cocoa from West Africa, passed a new law requiring corporations that sell commodities like cocoa to demonstrate that they have not contributed to deforestation.
Big companies must ensure they’re following the rules by the end of 2024.
To enhance measures against deforestation in cocoa production and ensure that Nigeria’s cocoa is not rejected in Europe, experts at the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria are initiating a “Trace Project” in six southern states, excluding Ogun state, home of Omo Forest Reserve.
Independent environmental ecologist Dr. Babajide Agboola claims that the loss of forests has a major effect on the rivers that originate in the Omo forest, deteriorating the water quality and causing soil erosion.
” We are putting money over morals. So, unless we reverse this trend the consequences that we end up with will be dire.”
By contributing about 5% of the world’s supply, Nigeria ranks as the fourth-largest cocoa producer in the world, according to the International Cocoa Organization.
It lags considerably behind the two biggest producers in the world, Ghana and Ivory Coast, who together meet almost half of global demand and are frequently singled out in business sustainability initiatives.
More than 60% of Nigeria’s cocoa exports go to Europe, with the remaining 8% going to the US and Canada, according to World Bank trade data and the country’s export council.