I've been following this discussion with great interest. As a chocolate educator I try to involve people in the complex issues surrounding cacao and chocolate, including the "fair-trade" and ecological issues.
Rodney, You've brought up a really good point of issue concerning the ecological sustainability of growing cacao. Most, if not all tropical ecologists/agronomists, and especially those working with commodities "cash" crops, have always spoken about the viability of growing these crops in the long term. How does one maintain the fertility of the soils given rainforest ecology while also sustaining whole ecosystems along with balancing the needs of both human living systems and providing a living? What do you do to increase these while being sustainable in the short and long term?
By cutting the rainforest down just to grow cash crops will, maybe, in the short term provide an income for those on the ground, but as you stated, the system will become exhausted and more rainforest gets cut down. Once those soils have lost their fertility it does not come back. It takes a long time for the rainforest to grow back - if it does. Given the variables of the climate and the expansion of desertification this may not happen at all.
I would suggest that investment needs to include the overall perspective of where in the world these 'cash' crops are being grown, i.e. the rainforest. The simple answer is to apply (N)-P-K. But that stuff is expensive - surely the growers can't afford it, nor can the governments of the respective countries. And I don't think NGO's or the other advocates of 'fair-trade' will pay for it either. And if you add the cost of shipping these into the equation... well.. you get my drift.
Also, just adding n-p-k is really not enough to support the viability of soil microorganisms. There are a lot of macro and micro nutrients that are made available through the actions of microorganisms that are needed for a healthy ecosystem - especially in agriculture crops. There is already enough evidence here in the Western world that the practice (of just adding n-p-k) has a couple detrimental costs and effects upon the environment - those petrochemical fertilizers consume a lot of energy in producing them, they have been shown to decrease the soil microorganisms and they leach out of the system in large quantities and pollute water sources and the larger environment, in essence poisoning the ecosystem and human drinking water.
I believe that in order to increase the sustainability and address all these needs, one needs to look at not cutting down the rainforest wholesale but leaving about 30%, with most being over-story. Intermixing other cash crops (food sources, lumber, etc...) into the growth pattern will provide for several things - more varied income for the growers, stabilizing the ecosystem in general which introduces a better habitat for wildlife, increasing the ground soil viability by introducing organic material through natural processes along with adding small amounts of both organic matter and fertilizers.
This will obviously impact cacao growing patterns,usually by lessening the amounts of cocoa beans coming out of the regions (not the point I understand for us chocolate loving westerners).
However, though cacao originated in the understory of the rainforest, which is a better habitat for it, growing in full sun or 1% shade is detrimental to the plant in the long term. In the full rainforest there were historically less incidents of disease attacking cacao - simply because the tress were too widely spaced for disease to wipe out whole stands. I am not suggesting this as an alternative to the current agricultural growing systems in place now as it does not address the issues and needs of all concerned.
By increasing to 30% and adding these other things growers could actually expand their holdings and increase the cacao groves, in essence creating managed growing environments while sustaining the viability of the whole ecosystem.
There is evidence that in pre-Columbian times humans in the Americas created managed agricultural environments over large tracts of land, which sustained peoples for long periods of time. I'm not really suggesting anything new here. This is just like modern "permaculture'.
I think I remember the that there are a few models of this happening on a smaller scale, in South America and in the DRC.
I also appreciate your brining into the discussion the political issues, i.e. the instituted SAPs, IMF/Word Bank, instability of governments... etc...
Kristy, thank you for your speaking about your experiences on the ground and your frank honesty. It is very nice for me to hear from professionals who study these issues in depth. Thanks for your link - will read it.
These really are large and complicated issues. I think that most of the large agricultural/commodity/chocolate companies just have their heads in the sand and do not want to address these larger issues (although to be fair, some are trying) - even though combined they could make a big difference, imo. Governments are not going to, neither is the answer in the large political organizations (again some are trying, but with little funding).
We do live on One world, we just can't seem to get outside our little minds/heads/egos/greed to be able to see the bigger picture and work together. On a small scale quite a lot of us 'see' and are doing this, but...
Looking forward to learning more on this discussion - I like the intelligent and thoughtfulness put forward by everyone and thanks for the links.