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Takeaways on AP’s investigation into cocoa coming from a protected Nigerian rainforest

Associated Press

OMO FOREST RESERVE, Nigeria (AP) — Habitat for a dwindling population of critically endangered African forest elephants is under threat, a casualty of the world’s appetite for chocolate.

Deforestation driven by planting cocoa, the main ingredient in chocolate, is whittling down Omo Forest Reserve, a protected rainforest in southwestern Nigeria that helps combat climate change and is one of Africa’s oldest and largest UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. Farmers are expanding into conservation areas where cocoa farming is banned, conservation officials say.

The Associated Press spoke to 20 farmers, two brokers and five licensed buying agents who are growing and selling cocoa from the reserve to figure out where cocoa beans used in holiday sweets are heading.

Here are takeaways from AP’s investigation:


The AP visited plantations and warehouses of farmers and licensed buying agents who acknowledge that they operate illegally in the reserve’s conservation area. AP also spoke with brokers working in the forest and visited facilities belonging to major cocoa trading companies just outside the reserve.

They say they supply Singapore-based Olam Group and Nigeria’s Starlink Global and Ideal Limited, the latter of which sends cocoa to General Cocoa in the U.S. A fewer number named Tulip Cocoa Processing Limited, connected to Dutch traders.

“We buy from farmers and sell to big companies that export like Olam, Starlink,” said Deborah Fabiyi, a manager at Kadet Agro-Allied Investments Limited, a licensed buying agent in the conservation area.

These big trading companies supply Nigerian cocoa to huge chocolate manufacturers like Mars Inc. and Ferrero, but because the chocolate supply chain is so complex and opaque, it’s not clear if cocoa from deforested parts of Omo Forest Reserve makes it into the sweets that they make, such as Snickers, M&Ms, Butterfinger and Nutella. Mars and Ferrero list farming sources on their websites that are close to or overlap with the forest but offer no specific locations.

In October, AP followed a van loaded with bags of cocoa beans from the conservation zone to an Olam warehouse outside the entrance of the forest. Olam confirmed the facility was theirs.

AP also photographed cocoa bags labeled with the names and logo of Olam and Tulip inside farmers’ warehouses inside the conservation zone. In an interview with AP, Starlink acknowledged that it gets cocoa from Omo Forest Reserve.


An estimated 1.4 million people in Nigeria, equivalent to about half the population of Nevada, depend on cocoa production for their livelihood, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. But aging cocoa trees are becoming less productive, pushing farmers into Omo reserve.

“The deforestation caused by cocoa expansion also stems from the world’s demand for cocoa to make chocolate,” said Emmanuel Olabode, a conservation manager who supervises the reserve’s rangers. “It is astronomical.”

The rangers blame the state government that owns the forest for failing to enforce the law barring cocoa farming. Several buildings in the conservation zone, including farmers’ homes and warehouses, have been marked for removal by the government, but it hasn’t occurred.

The Ogun state government acknowledged “the menace” of “illegal” cocoa farming in the forest and told AP that it had forcibly evicted the farmers in 2007 before they came back.



The Singapore-based food conglomerate says it “forbids” members of its “Ore Agbe Ijebu” farmer group from “sourcing from protected areas.”

“Any supplier found to be illegally deforesting will be removed from our supply chain,” Olam Food Ingredients, or Ofi, said in a statement to AP, adding that it’s “investigating thoroughly.”

The company says it visits every farm to take GPS coordinates and meets with each farmer to agree on boundaries that often aren’t marked.

Farmers who say they sell cocoa from the forest to Olam noted that they’re not members of the Ore Agbe Ijebu farming group and hadn’t heard of it.


Tulip said it’s “confident” its supplies don’t come from protected areas. It says its cocoa is certified by the Rainforest Alliance, which checks compliance with sustainability standards, and that it uses GPS mapping of farms.

Tulip’s managing director, Johan van der Merwe, said “field operatives” complete digital questionnaires about sourcing with all farmers and suppliers. He also says Tulip’s cocoa bags are reused and distributed widely so it’s possible they’re seen across Nigeria.

Farmers and buying agents who say they sell cocoa to Tulip told AP that they weren’t required to complete any questionnaire before their cocoa is purchased.


The company gets cocoa from the reserve, spokesman Sambo Abubakar told AP. Although Starlink doesn’t make sustainable sourcing claims on its website, it supplies at least one company that does: General Cocoa, U.S. subsidiary of Paris-based Sucden.

Starlink has a “traceability program to determine the quality of cocoa, know the farmers, and sensitize them on best practices,” Abubakar said.

But this program hasn’t yet been extended to Omo reserve and Ogun state, he said.


Ferrero says its supplies follow “stringent requirements” that are independently certified, adding that GPS mapping and satellite monitoring of farms show its “cocoa sourcing from Nigeria does not come from protected forest areas.”

The company that makes Ferrero Rocher, Nutella, Baby Ruth, Butterfinger and Crunch bars said cocoa it gets from Ofi through the Ore Agbe Ijebu farming group is verified by the Control Union certifying body.

The Netherlands-based body said it assessed a sample of farms against Ofi’s own sustainability policies and that “the specific criteria and protocols established in the verification exercise are set by Ofi.”

Control Union said it wouldn’t disclose the results to AP, citing privacy.


The company says its suppliers follow Mars’ deforestation policy standards and that it’s committed to ensuring “100% of our cocoa is responsibly sourced globally and traceable to first point of purchase by 2025.”

It says farms part of its Responsibly Sourced Cocoa program are “expected” to be mapped, allowing the company behind Snickers, M&Ms, Dove, Twix and Milky Way to hold suppliers accountable if suspected deforestation occurs.

Mars says its preliminary findings show none of the farms that have been mapped overlap with the reserve.


Jean-Baptiste Lescop, secretary general of Sucden Group, says the company manages risks to forest conservation by sourcing Rainforest Alliance cocoa, mapping farms and using satellite images but that it’s a “continuous process” because most farmers in Nigeria don’t have official land ownership documents.

The company investigates reports of problems and is working on a response to AP’s findings about Starlink, he said.


The German chocolate company gets cocoa from Nigeria and uses Olam but hasn’t disclosed specific locations where its supplies are sourced in Nigeria. It told AP that Olam confirmed that its supplies were outside deforested forests.


Associated Press climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. See more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Article Topic Follows: AP National

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