When you’re at a shade-grown cacao farm, you can feel the difference the tree canopy makes. Bird calls float through the humid air, creating a cacophony of melodies. Leaves rustle overhead, providing refreshing cover from the sun above. Birds fly around you, foraging for fruits and insects.
Bennett and her Smithsonian colleagues want to create more of these places, which is why this month, the Smithsonian Bird Friendly program is launching a Bird Friendly cocoa certification. To earn it, cacao must be farmed under a canopy of native shade trees or next to wild forest that a farmer has committed to preserving. This style of cacao cultivation supports biodiversity and makes production more sustainable long-term.
These kinds of bird-friendly cacao operations are rare. To increase cacao production, an increasing number of farmers use a system called intensified full-sun monocultures: rows of heavily pruned cacao plants grown under the hot sun, with little to no native vegetation. Rather than having the soundscape of a thriving ecosystem, these farms are quiet, with only the hum of a few insects, Bennett says.
According to a 2021 study Bennett conducted, an intensive farm with no shade will see a fourfold decline in the total number of bird species there. Without a diversity of trees, birds lack the insects and fruits they need for food, as well as the vertical tree space to support many different birds. Single-plant production also turns to the application of pesticides and fertilizers to increase yield.
Additionally, intensive operations have a limited lifespan, Bennett says. “Cocoa trees will produce for up to about 20 years in that type of system, and then productivity will collapse,” she says. “The soils are depleted, and then the cocoa needs to move elsewhere—generally to where there is currently forest, and it moves into that forest area and drives deforestation.
While cacao farmed this way has a lower yield, farmers should be able to make more money off of their cacao with the certification, since the final product sells for a higher price, sometimes upwards of $10 a bar, Bennett says.
“We’re hoping that the balance equals out, so even though cocoa production is lower in bird-friendly systems, the value to the farmers is much higher, and the overall sustainability of the farm system is also much higher,” she says.
The goal of Smithsonian’s Bird Friendly program, Bennett says, is to help farmers form the connections that make more sustainable growing possible. It’s the latest addition to the Migratory Bird Center’s conservation efforts, which also include the Bird Friendly coffee certification program, and, this spring, the opening of the newly transformed Bird House at the National Zoo.
The program’s first Bird Friendly-certified partner is Zorzal Cacao. Located in the Dominican Republic, Zorzal Cacao sets aside 70 percent of its more than 1,000 acres of land as forever wild, meaning it will never be used for agriculture.
Zorzal Cacao’s mission is to “finance biodiversity through the sale of cacao,” according to the company’s founder, Charles Kerchner. Organized around the “nucleus” of its reserve, Zorzal Cacao also includes a collective of 17 organic cacao farms, all of which are now Bird Friendly-certified. Kerchner says his company acts as an umbrella organization that covers the overhead costs of certification so they don’t get passed down to the farmers, making it easier for more farms to become certified.
As an organization with a bird-focused mission from the start—zorzal is a Spanish word for thrush—Kerchner emphasizes the importance of the new Bird Friendly certification to his company’s commitment. “We want to make sure we’re buying from farmers that align with our mission,” Kerchner says. “How do we do that? There was nothing out there, really. You had an organic certification, Rainforest Alliance, but none of those really were focused on birds.”
To become certified, third-party auditors trained by Bennett and her colleagues ensure that each farm meets certain requirements. The two paths to certification are for a farm to either set aside 50 percent of its land as forest or to maintain a minimum of 30 to 40 percent canopy cover, with at least 11 tree species per hectare—factors that highly correlated with bird diversity and abundance in Bennett’s study. All farms must also be organic.
Crafting the 100 percent Bird Friendly chocolate that the program’s chocolatier partners will now be selling requires more than simply ensuring the use of Bird Friendly-certified cocoa. Since making chocolate involves combining cocoa with other ingredients, the program needs to ensure Bird Friendly procedures are being followed throughout the production process, Bennett says. Participants also sign an agreement stating they will not mix Bird Friendly cocoa with other cocoas.
Zorzal Cacao and other sustainable producers still make up only a very small portion of the cacao industry today, but Bennett and Kerchner are hopeful that they can continue to encourage more widespread use of practices that support biodiversity by creating a positive feedback loop where consumers vote with their dollars.
The goal is to create a system where “consumers are benefiting, farmers are benefiting and producers are benefiting,” Kerchner says.
For now, Bennett sees this year as a chance to cement best practices and ensure the new cocoa and chocolate program runs smoothly before it opens up the certification to other chocolatiers. In the meantime, Bird Friendly chocolate will be available at Raaka Chocolate, Dandelion Chocolate and French Broad Chocolate.
Though more expensive than mainstream chocolates, Bird Friendly chocolate is worth the cost, Bennett says—and not just because of the service it does to the environment. The three current partners are small bean-to-bar chocolatiers, and according to Bennett, their craft is evident in their product.
“They’re like light-years beyond what you just normally buy in the grocery store,” she says, “so I would say your taste buds will thank you.”