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Can Carteret atoll climate change refugees bank on chocolate?

Cacao Crop

The chocolate industry anticipates a 30% growth in demand by 2020. Photograph: Getty Images


Powered by article titled “Can Carteret atoll climate-change refugees bank on chocolate?” was written by Greg Harman, for on Thursday 5th December 2013 22.05 UTC

The few small schoolhouses on the South Pacific islands of the Carteret atoll close at noon. Rising seas and increasingly violent storm surges have swept away most of the gardenable patches of soil here, meaning many children arrive in the morning with little more than coconut milk in their stomachs. Their concentration soon wavers.

“The few scientists who went to study [the Carteret Islands] about two years ago said the islands will be uninhabitable by 2015,” said Jacinta Helin, a Carteret native who now lives in Hawaii. “That’s not very far off. And we can already see that, because the garden areas are lost to the sea.”

Seven years ago, the islands’ council of elders voted to abandon their homes to the rising waves. As some of the world’s first climate refugees, they plan to relocate 80 kilometers southwest to Bougainville Island. And they’re gambling their economic future on volatile but dearly-in-demand cacao, the raw material feeding the world’s still growing taste for chocolate.

It will likely prove to be a good gamble.

Africa, home to 70% of the world’s cacao production, has not only been struggling with political turbulence and drier weather, but also has been making only slow progress in stamping out the exploitation of child labor.

That’s a problem for companies like Hershey’s, which last year became the last of the world’s top cocoa producers to commit to moving toward buying only fairtrade certified cocoa.

And the short supply comes as the industry anticipates a 30% growth in demand by 2020. The International Cocoa Organization this week said demand outstripped production by 160,000 metric tons last year, significantly exceeding the projected shortfall of 52,000 tons.

Cocoa from the Pacific

While Asia and Oceania represent just 14% of world production today, recent years have revealed “a great deal of enthusiasm for Pacific cocoa,” said Anita Neville, Rainforest Alliance’s certification representative for Australia and Oceania. “There’s quite an interest in seeing what this region can deliver as an alternative to West Africa for the obvious reasons.”

Cargill announced in March plans to invest $100m in a cocoa processing plant in Indonesia, its first in the region.

And this week, Mondelez International announced plans for a $190m multi-category “food campus” expected to become both the largest cocoa processing plant in India and the company’s largest manufacturing plant in the Asia Pacific.

With assistance from the Rainforest Alliance, which expects to start the cacao certification process in 2014, and the Pacific Growers Export Partnership, working to provide access to real-time pricing information, the Carteret atoll villagers should be able to tap a strong market – if they can succeed in their relocation efforts and grow their operation effectively.

Ursula Rakova, a regional environmental figure now leading the Carteret Islanders in their climate-induced exodus, formed the Bougainville Cocoa Net in 2009 to organize and empower Bougainville growers – both refugee growers and already-established growers on the island. Today, 20,000 metric tons of the 37,000 metric tons of cacao beans being exported out of Papau New Guinea comes from Bougainville, Rakova told me by email.

More obstacles ahead

Even with help from the all these groups, though, the islanders will face plenty of challenges.

“There have been a lot of attempts to grow cocoa in the Far East,” said Steven Haws, an independent cocoa analyst for Commodities Risk Analysis. “They generally have not been very successful.”

While Indonesia can boast of being the third largest cocoa producer in the world, Malaysia’s production fell from 247,000 tons in 1990 to a mere 3,700 tons last year, according to the Malaysian Cocoa Board.

Cacao can be a fickle crop. In some cacao-growing regions of the world, as much as half of all cocoa beans are lost to weather variability, pests and fungal diseases. “One way or another it’s a struggle to keep it going because there are some diseases that are pretty serious,” Haws said.


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