Pacific Climate Refugees Banking on Cocoa

Carteret Atoll children playing on storm-damaged trees. Image Courtesy: Tulele Peisa.
Carteret Atoll children playing on storm-damaged trees. Image Courtesy: Tulele Peisa.

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 fair-trade 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.

Neville, however, said the chief challenge is more about organization and good agronomy practice, elements the Rainforest Alliance and the PGEP plan to bring to the Bougainville equation. Although they are subject to short-term price volatility, cacao beans have generally kept pace with the rate of inflation over the last quarter century. Prices have grown from approximately $1,300 per metric ton in the 1980s to $2,710 last month.

How climate change, the force driving the Carteret Islanders from their homes, will affect cacao production worldwide, however, is yet to be determined. According to a 2011 study by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, cacao farms in West Africa will have to move to significantly higher elevations by 2050 to offset expected temperature increases. Those that remain in low-lying zones will need to experiment with erecting shade structures and implement irrigation, or shift to other crops.

Moving a village

So far, only one of the Carteret Islanders’ five planned villages have been completed in Bougainville. The homes, with their metal roofs and woven, bamboo walls are a combination of Western and indigenous techniques intended to blend in with their new neighbors, Helin said.

“Cartarets people are very peace-loving people. They dance, they go fishing, they hunt together and they laugh a lot,” said Helin. “But the main island where they’re moving to is a whole other culture. They’re still recovering from a civil war that started in the 1980s.”

Bougainville achieved political autonomy from Papau New Guinea in the late 1990s after a decade-long civil war, which was sparked by a dispute over an Australian copper mine blamed for an increase in still births and a range of environmental damages.

To begin recovering some of the revenue previously brought in by the now-closed mine (at one point estimated at 20% of PNG’s total gross national product), Bougainville officials are hoping to develop a robust ecotourism economy.

As for the Cartaret Islanders, they aren’t home free yet. While resettlement lands have been gifted by the Catholic Church, the estimated $2m to relocate the communities is still being raised through the nonprofit, Tulele Peisa, Rakova said. About 20 of the more than 100 families still living on the Carteret’s atoll are expected are begin their crossing soon to populate a second village, he added.

“It is impossible to [explain] what is happening on the island and how difficult it is every day, especially for women and children,” Rakova said.

Meanwhile, on Bougainville Island, each family is getting one hectare of land and is being encouraged to grow 300 cocoa seedlings that, if properly managed, will produce one metric ton of beans per month.

“In five years time, BCN should be the sole contributor on cocoa in Bougainville,” Rakova said. “It means added responsibilities and hard work, but we have no choice as we need to fast track the relocation program and get people relocated to safe and secure lands.”

(Originally published at Guardian Sustainable Business.)