Sweet Talk

The brilliant Aztecs who first figured out that cocoa beans could be transformed into the most fabulous confection on Earth—chocolate—would likely be shocked if they could see what has become of their humble sweet treat: now, 2,000 years later, chocolate is a multi-billion dollar industry. Those ancient cocoa farmers would perhaps be even more surprised to learn that, given the intense market demand for chocolate, most of the world’s five million cocoa farmers live in poverty and struggle with pests, climate change, and child labor.

The Rainforest Alliance, together with the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), has been addressing these challenges in the cocoa sector since the late 1990s. Our program establishes a norm for sustainable cocoa farming (the SAN Standard), and awards Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM status to farms meeting this standard; the program also helps build consumer demand and market incentives for sustainable cocoa products while simultaneously supporting cocoa producers to farm more sustainably, productively, and profitably. Our cocoa program has grown so rapidly—especially in the last five years—that today a full 13.4 percent of the world’s cocoa is now produced by SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farms.

In order to determine how well certification is meeting our goals to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and their families, we conducted a study using a large sample of audits reports from certified cocoa farms (186 certificates), representing more than 170,000 individual farms in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ecuador, Peru, and Indonesia. We also summarized recent independent scientific studies evaluating the effects of the SAN/Rainforest Alliance certification program.

Here are some key findings from the report:

  • While all certified farms are required to protect and restore natural ecosystems, compliance with other conservation-related criteria varied by region. Farms in South America complied fully with shade cover requirements, while those in West Africa and Indonesia had lower rates of compliance. We expect that recent regulatory changes in West Africa that clarify ambiguous tree ownership laws will help improve compliance with shade tree recommendations. (In the past, because ownership of shade trees was unclear, loggers would often come in and fell them, damaging cocoa trees in the process. Growers often removed shade trees preemptively.) Even with lower compliance rates than other regions, however, two independent studies1, 2 in West Africa found that SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farms retained and/or replanted shade trees at a significantly higher rate than non-certified farms.
  • Performance related to productivity-boosting practices such as fertilization and pest control was variable across the portfolio, though there was widespread high compliance with criteria addressing appropriate farmer training programs. Several independent studies3 found that cocoa yields, profitability, and optimism about the future were higher on SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified farms than non-certified farms.
  • Across the board, certified cocoa farms were found to comply fully with all mandatory and non-mandatory requirements related to the employment of minors and youth. The SAN Standard places strict limits on the amount of time that youth aged 15-18 can work and the tasks they can perform, and completely prohibits minors under 15 years of age from farm work except on family farms in very restricted circumstances. 100 percent of certified cocoa farms were found to comply fully with requirements related to the employment of minors and youth. Furthermore, with the exception of one of the 186 certificates examined, all the farms complied with criteria addressing access to education for school-aged children, and nine out of ten certified farms provided access to medical services for farmers, workers, and their families.
  • All certified farms complied with mandatory criteria related to the use of personal protective equipment and the avoidance of 99 prohibited substances. Adoption of other agrochemical safety best practices varied by country, but generally improved over time. Improvements were especially pronounced in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Independent research4 found that SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farmers in West Africa used protective equipment and safe agrochemical storage practices at significantly higher rates than non-certified farmers.

The report also identifies some areas where performance was not as strong or consistent as desired, identifies how such issues are being addressed by the new (2017) SAN standard, and makes recommendations for further addressing key issues through enhanced farmer training and support.

With the global demand for chocolate booming, it’s essential that we continue to train farmers in sustainable and climate-smart farming methods. Certification is one way to help protect the lives and livelihoods of cocoa farmers and their families as they work to meet the demand for the world’s favorite sweet treat.



  1. Addae-Boadu, S., (2014). The cocoa certfcaton program and its efect on sustainable cocoa producton in Ghana: a case study in Upper Denkyira West District. Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.
  2. Borg, J. & Selmer, J.K. (2012). From Ghana to Magnum Ice Cream: Tracking Down the Organisaton of Sustainable Cocoa Product Chains. ESA report 2012:14, Environmental Systems Analysis, Chalmers, Göteborg.
  3. Deppeler A., Fromm I., Aidoo R. (2014). The unmaking of the cocoa farmer: Analysis of benefts and challenges of third-party audited certfcaton schemes for cocoa producers and laborers in Ghana. Retrieved from https://www.ifama.org/resources/files/2014-Conference/1069.pdf
  4. Addae-Boadu, S., (2014). The cocoa certfcaton program and its efect on sustainable cocoa producton in Ghana: a case study in Upper Denkyira West District. Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology, Kumasi, Ghana.
Ramon nut, a sustainable superfood - photo by Sergio Izquierdo

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