How the world’s best chocolate is getting even better

In Madagascar, an updated approach to producing cocoa, the main ingredient in the world’s favourite Halloween treats, is protecting the country's endangered lemurs.

By Anna Fiorentino
Published 28 Oct 2022, 10:38 BST
The main ingredient in chocolate, cocoa, often is grown in less-than-optimal conditions for the environment. A new push in Madagascar, where the finest cocoa is produced, aims to make chocolate production more sustainable.
Photograph by Huieng Hu, Getty Images

Some of the best cocoa on Earth is produced in Madagascar, where an updated approach to farming cacao, the main ingredient in the world’s favourite sweet, is offering benefits for the country's unique ecosystem.

Traditional, soil-depleting farming practices for the country’s staple crop of rice are taking their toll on the land and the creatures that live on it. Certain varieties of cacao, on the other hand, are not heat tolerant; fruit and hardwood trees are mixed in with cacao trees to provide shade. This method, called agroforestry, though practiced, is going through a renaissance in a bid to encourage more cacao farming and to improve yields.

And there’s another advantage: Sustaining an ecosystem increases biodiversity, encouraging more animals, such as Madagascar’s endangered lemurs, to return to the land.

“Agroforestry incentivises people to protect forests and claim land by reforesting it—not necessarily clearing it,” says Salohy Soloarivelo, mission environmental officer at USAID Madagascar.

Malagasy workers in the Madagascar cacao region of Ambanja, shell cacao fruit for the beans, which will be made into cocoa.
Photograph by Gianluigi Guercia, AFP, Getty Images

Chocolate sustainability

Cocoa—and its anti-inflammatory effects on the human body—is cropping up more in health and wellness practices worldwide. But the rapidly growing chocolate industry, which reached £39 billion in 2021, is clearing rainforests in some places, decimating biodiversity, and contributing to climate change by emitting significant levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In most cases, just one 200-gram bar of dark chocolate made from cocoa from cleared rainforest contributes the CO2 equivalent of a car driven five miles, according to the World Resources Institute.

A number of chocolate producers are getting on the sustainability bandwagon. Beyond Good organic chocolate company works directly with 150 Malagasy cacao farmers to bring them up to date on the most progressive agroforestry practices, from tree selection for shade and soil health to species diversity that helps maximise the survival of the island’s threatened lemurs. Madagascar’s ring-tailed lemur population has plummeted at least 95 percent since 2000.

Mars Wrigley, maker of SNICKERS, M&M'S and other Halloween front-runners, announced in early October its commitment to using only verified, responsibly sourced cocoa in European factories by 2023 in an effort to help farmers thrive, avoid child labour, and preserve forests.

“As one of the world’s largest buyers of cocoa, we have a responsibility to help drive positive, long-lasting, systemic impact to support the farmers and communities in our supply chain," says Benjamin Guilbert, vice president of procurement at Mars Wrigley Europe, on the company’s website.

An indri, the largest of the lemur species and classified as critically endangered, clings to a tree in Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.
Photograph by Adriane, Ohanesian, Nat Geo Image Collection

Lemurs return

We bounce down potholed roads in Madagascar on our way to a cacao plantation, passing women dressed in bright reds and yellows selling fruit and vegetables under grass huts. Small yards are covered in drying and fermenting cacao seeds on their way to becoming chocolate.

The country’s slash-and-burn approach to farming is evident in an endless stretch of treeless rice patties; some cacao parcels where more progressive growing practices haven’t been introduced contain small trees bearing little fruit.

This massive island nation is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, but the country has lost 25 percent of its tree cover since 2000, primarily to firewood and charcoal production. Deforestation will also exacerbate erosion in the northern part of the country as climate change drives stronger cyclones and increasingly heavy rainfall.

At a plantation in Ambanja owned by fourth-generation farmer Andrianarison Lalatiana, the sour smell of fermenting cacao permeates, a mixture of cabbage and vinegar strong enough to burn sinuses. His is one of the agroforestry plantations where, for the first time, researchers from the Bristol Zoo in the U.K. see lemurs in the trees: banana, mango, jackfruit, towering hardwoods, and vanilla bean.

This cacao is from Akesson's Organic farm in Madagascar, which produces the world's finest quality cocoa.
Photograph by Bernd Jonkmanns, Laif, Redux

We walk as quietly as we can in the dark through the plantation, cacao trees sprouting football-shaped red-and-orange pods from their trunks. Madagascar’s premium fruit-flavoured heirloom variety of cacao, called criollo, needs shade to tolerate the extreme heat, and companion planting has been practiced a long time for that variety.

Within minutes, he flashes a handheld light on the beady little eyes of a mouse lemur nestled in a purple banana blossom. He quickly tracks down an endangered fork-marked lemur, then points silently up to a brown lemur high in the treetops. Some of the primates come to forage for banana flowers; others prefer snacking on mangos, he explains.

Until Lalatiana learned how to maximise his cacao production, earning enough to feed his family and consider the environment, he thought of lemurs as rodents—many Malagasy still do. But now he comes out looking for them every night.

“I have a responsibility to make sure that the lemurs are safe here and that we can continue to understand them more,” says Lalatiana, who sells cocoa directly to Beyond Good.

Chocolate for health

The ancients of Mesoamerica called chocolate a divine magical potion. Now, research claims that in its raw, bitter form, without processing or sugar, cocoa wards off cancer, lowers blood pressure, and improves memory. Cacao, the less-processed form of cocoa, is high in antioxidants and its anti-inflammatory chemicals, called flavonoids, are making their way into health and wellness products. It even promises spiritual awakening in trendy Cacao Ceremonies handed down from the Mayans and Aztecs.

Given the resurgence of cocoa's popularity, more chocolate brands are considering sustainable and ethical best practices. New efforts are under way, such as the Cocoa Accountability Map, Cocoa & Forests Initiative, and the International Accountability Framework. All of these organisations encourage the preservation of lemurs’ forest homes.

Working with Beyond Good, fair trade and Rainforest Alliance-certified Guittard Chocolate, and others, USAID is introducing agroforestry to 2,000 additional cacao and spice farmers in the dry southern part of Madagascar—the area of the country most damaged by more frequent cyclones and ongoing drought. The partnerships aim to protect forests by improving the livelihoods of the 75 percent of Malagasy who live below the poverty line. To survive, many have no choice but to illegally cut down trees and hunt lemurs for food.

And it’s highly plausible, zoo researchers say, based on the lemur sightings in the northern cacao plantations, that more modern agroforestry in the country means more refuges for endangered lemurs with nowhere else to go.


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