A Mighty Grant: With Modest Support, This Environmental Group Achieved Big Changes

 photo:  Sergey Uryadnikov/shutterstock

photo:  Sergey Uryadnikov/shutterstock

Chocolate: We love it for so many reasons. Its taste. Its texture. Its ability to become a suite of bonbons filled with caramel and dusted with sea salt. But chocolate starts as cacao—a waxy, bitter bean encased in a Nerf-football-shaped pod that grows straight from the tree trunk—and cacao farming is notorious for labor exploitation, child labor, and large-scale environmental destruction.

Cacao grows in a band around the middle of the globe, basically 20 degrees north and south of the equator. About 70 percent of the world’s cacao comes from Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, where cacao farming has denuded some of the world’s most spectacular and environmentally critical rainforests. If you look at satellite images of the Cote d’Ivoire’s forests from 2000 to 2014, it’s like seeing a piece of green construction paper left out in the sun—all of the color bleached white. African animals, left essentially homeless, have become vulnerable to disease, poaching and starvation. Chimpanzees are now an endangered species here. Elephants, once the pride of Cote d’Ivoire (their namesake), number around 400 in the country.

Some U.S. craft chocolate makers have turned to ethically sourcing cacao closer to home. They’re forging relationships with farmers and farmer cooperatives in Central and South America, paying two or three times the commodity price for cacao, and helping farmers obtain certifications such as Fair Trade or UTZ that bring higher prices in exchange for good growing practices. Still, these small-batch, bean-to-bar makers comprise just a fraction of the $100 billion global chocolate industry, and the major manufacturers such as Mars, Nestle, Hershey’s and Cadbury have a long history of deeply damaging sourcing.

Enter the Arcus Foundation. This New York- and Cambridge-based funder, focused on great ape and gibbon conservation (and LGBT social justice), supports a project that may finally alter the cacao industry’s deeply destructive, century-old course. In 2017, Arcus allocated $350,000 to support Mighty Earth’s work to stop deforestation connected to commercial agriculture, including cacao. This grant, while not huge, has already had outsized impact.

Mighty Earth—a nimble, aggressive environmental advocacy and action group—is part of the nonprofit Center for International Policy in D.C. It was incubated by the public relations and lobbying group Waxman Strategies (chaired by the former U.S. Representative from California Henry Waxman). Beyond Arcus, the Packard Foundation is another major grantmaker providing support.

Mighty Earth targets groups or industries wreaking havoc on the forests, oceans or air, and pushes them to change. “The extent to which big chocolate brands like Mars are linked to the destruction of national parks and protected areas is shocking,” says Etelle Higonnet, Mighty Earth’s campaign and legal director. “These companies need to take immediate action to end deforestation once and for all, and remediate past damage.”

After the release of Mighty Earth’s Arcus-funded report, “Chocolate’s Dark Secrets,” in September, 2017, the major chocolate companies responded with promises to make change.

Then, in February, still working under the Arcus grant, Mighty Earth released an update to that report in time for the annual chocolate-giving extravaganza known as Valentine’s Day. The new report highlighted environmentally damaging cacao growing beyond West Africa. Mighty Earth called on the chocolate companies to extend their commitments to change. Once again, its work paid off.

As environmental funders look to expand their paths to impact amid a hostile policy climate at the federal level, it’s worth taking a closer look at how Mighty Earth operates—and leverages donor dollars.

Highly Targeted Pressure Campaigns

Mighty Earth’s brand of campaigning for change involves on-the-ground research, compelling reports, personal conversations with major offenders, and coordinated media placements. All of this culminates in more personal phone calls and visits to industry and government leaders, and in the case of cacao, real promises of change this year. The Arcus grant, while not huge by foundation standards, set in motion one of the hardest-hitting assaults on cacao industry practices in memory. 

The funding for the cacao campaign came on the heels of a similar Arcus grant for a potent Mighty Earth campaign to end deforestation due to palm oil and rubber farming in Gabon, Africa. While working on the palm oil project, which was also funded by the Packard Foundation, Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz discovered that palm oil grower and major commodity player Olam is also the world’s largest cacao trader. When Hurowitz later requested funding for Mighty Earth to launch a cacao project in West Africa, it was a natural fit for Arcus.

The majority of Arcus’s grants back the continuation of existing projects and/or previously funded organizations. “We believe it takes a long time to achieve conservation of great apes and gibbons, so we try to provide support over the long term,” says Helga Rainer, Director of Conservation for Arcus and lead editor of the foundation’s multi-volume report “State of the Apes.”

“Generally it takes time to build understanding and awareness, and a way to address a threat. It’s a long-term game,” she says.

Protecting great ape and gibbon habitat is a long-term proposition because of the interplay between conservation and economic development. “We recognize that countries have a right to develop and provide better opportunities for their citizens, but there are ways to do that without destroying the environment or social networks. We’re being the voice for the apes, but mindful of the importance of all these other dynamics,” says Rainer, who stresses that Arcus also gives grants to groups not previously funded. “We support a diverse range of approaches to support conservation of great apes and gibbons, and often respond to what people on the ground are telling us. We’re not wedded to one approach over another, we believe we should try to use all the tools in the toolbox.”

On the Ground with Cacao Growers

The first step toward making chocolate sweet for the planet was visiting the countries where it’s grown. With Arcus funding, Higonnet took a month-long research trip to West Africa. Mighty Earth decided to focus specifically on deforestation within national parks and forests, because it’s illegal and egregious, and also seemed most likely to generate media buzz. “With all of our work on commercial agriculture, we don’t often see it within national parks and protected areas. The fact that is was standard practice made it much worse than what we’ve seen as typical in soy or palm oil,” says Hurowitz.

Armed with maps showing this deforestation, Higonnet sought out and spoke to farmers who lived within these areas. She found entire communities living within the borders of national forests, as many as 30,000 people inside a “park” that had been almost completely clear-cut and replanted with the squat, spindly cacao trees—as well as cell phone towers, mosques, schools and health clinics. “I’d interview them, and ask who they were selling cocoa to. Then I’d go look for those people, generally in little stores in the villages inside the forest or on the edge,” says Higonnet.

Sometimes she’d find store owners; other times, she’d wait for someone to show up. She asked these small shopkeepers, and others hanging around, who they sold to. What she found was that the cacao farmed within national forests was sold to local buyers, who then sold it to small-scale middlemen, who sold it to the large traders working in the port cities—the multinational corporations like Olam and Cargill supplying the Hershey’s and Nestles of the world.

While most profits go to manufacturers and retailers, the big traders control what happens on the ground, says Higonnet. “They have responsibility because they’re closest to the crime. There are about 10 traders who control the majority of cocoa in West Africa, so they have a lot of power.”

One thing went unseen during these two scouting trips: animals. “Oh my goodness, it was so sad! I asked everywhere I went if people could take me to where there were animals. The largest thing I saw pretty much was a bird,” says Higonnet. “Primates are going extinct in Ivory Coast and Ghana. Some have totally vanished from the Ivory Coast. People are sad. I even interviewed a bunch of poachers who told us there is nothing left to poach. They had to find a new livelihood. If even the illegal poachers have to get new jobs, that’s pretty terrible.”

Back in the U.S., Higonnet, Glenn Hurowitz and Mighty Earth media director Marisa Bellantonio wrote up their report, one of the most beautifully written and illustrated nonprofit reports you’ll ever read.

From the report: “Much of Ivory Coast was densely covered by forests when it achieved independence in 1960, making it prime habitat for forest elephants and chimpanzees. Ivory Coast once boasted one of the highest rates of biodiversity in Africa, with thousands of endemic species. However, the chocolate industry’s sourcing practices have eliminated much of this forest. According to Ivorian government statistics and maps, less than 11 percent of the country remains forested, and less than 4 percent remains densely forested.”

The report covers the human toll, too: “Between 5 and 6 million people, largely smallholders, grow cocoa around the world. In Ivory Coast, cocoa farmers earn around 50 cents per day, and in Ghana, around 84 cents per day. Farmers are short-changed since chocolate’s revenue and profits are strongly skewed towards traders and manufacturers.”

Encouraging Companies to Be Their Best Selves

Higonnet, who has a sweet, disarming voice, then called and/or wrote to about 50 of the largest retailers, including Costco and supermarket chains, the large chocolate manufacturers, including Hershey’s, Mars, Nestle, Ferraro and Lindt, and the major cocoa traders, including Cargill and Olam. “We shared the report and said, ‘What is your position on all this? What are you going to do about it?’” says Higonnet.

Mighty Earth also met with government leaders from West Africa: high-ranking officials in the Cote d’Ivoire including from the ministries of agriculture, forestry and planning, the prime minister’s office, the top environmental advisor to the president, the mapping agency that maps deforestation, and the parliamentarian committee. “I made a PowerPoint presentation to explain it all. It’s an open secret, but I don’t think they knew how serious it was,” says Higonnet.

“Without forests, those countries won’t be able to support an agricultural sector for the long term,” says Hurowitz. “They desperately need to increase the amount of forest cover in their countries.”

Some business and government leaders were responsive; others dismissed the findings or simply refused to the take the call.

Mighty Earth then released the report to the media, starting with same-day articles in major media outlets. The funding from Arcus helped Mighty Earth collaborate in advance with these media partners, and organize a trip for reporters from The Guardian to West Africa to see the deforestation themselves. Mighty Earth also sent the report to every journalist they could think of writing about the chocolate industry, agriculture, the environment or Africa.

The coverage was tremendous: nearly 250 articles around the world, as well as radio spots, social shares, and report views. There was a front-page piece in The Guardian, a “most-downloaded” article in Der Spiegel, and pieces everywhere from Confectionary News to the Huffington Post. “I was really happy with the extent to which it was covered in West Africa itself,” says Hurowitz. “Obviously, this issue affects people living in Ivory Coast and Ghana the most. We had a press conference in Ivory Coast to launch it, and did a bunch of outreach in Ghana. I think that led to this coverage.”

While the media was abuzz with the story, Mighty Earth, still funded by Arcus, again reached out to the businesses involved, and the government officials, and encouraged them to, in Higonnet’s words, “Try to do just a little bit better.”

The results have been, well... pretty sweet.

Ghana and Ivory Coast and 24 cocoa companies signed a pact promising no new deforestation, and reforestation of areas already compromised.

With the Valentine’s push, these commitments went further:

  • In February of 2018, Hershey’s announced its commitment to buying 100-percent zero-deforestation cacao, effective immediately.

  • Olam committed to trading zero-deforestation cocoa and to agroforestry in Cote d’Ivoire, effective immediately.  

  • Chocolate mega-manufacturer Barry Callebaut committed to buying deforestation-free cocoa by 2025.

  • Godiva promised to roll out a cross-commodity zero-deforestation policy, including in cacao.

  • Mondelez has committed to zero-deforestation cacao for several points of origin beyond West Africa.

Next up: The release of an an Easter-timed scorecard in the form of a consumer shopping guide of companies doing chocolate sourcing well, as identified by a green egg. (Bad-egg companies get red eggs.)

Mighty Earth is also working to get more companies to sign the no-deforestation pact, and ensuring the current signees make good on their stated commitments. Mighty Earth will analyze and help improve implementation plans, and make sure companies’ zero-deforestation goals are time-bound on a detailed calendar. The same Arcus grant will cover this step.

“We’re also asking the 24 companies that signed on to this pledge to protect the West African forest to please make their pledge global, not just West Africa. There is probably high risk in Asia and the Amazon for deforestation for cocoa. I’m now hounding them to follow up and get details and push each of them to do a bit better,” says Higonnet.

Mighty Earth’s efforts to change the cacao industry were not taken alone, of course. A Dutch organization, IDH, was involved behind the scenes, for example. Prince Charles’s International Sustainability Unit had convened a meeting of the industry group World Cocoa Foundation to discuss deforestation before the November 2017 media coverage of the report. Still, armed with the findings from Mighty Earth, Prince Charles was able to push harder for serious change, and other groups fighting deforestation in cacao gained more ammunition.

While many foundations focus on conservation, Arcus is rare in its support of Mighty Earth’s style of “high-touch, high-conflict” environmental activism, says Mighty Earth CEO Glenn Hurowitz. “It’s really a small handful of philanthropies that have been at the cutting edge of creating highly targeted advocacy initiatives. It may take a little bit of conflict, but philanthropies brave enough to support advocacy have seen outsized results. Quite modest investments in strategic, targeted environmental advocacy can have world-shifting changes in a very short period of time.”