The new chocolate, Rainforest Alliance Certified Plantations Arriba Chocolate, has been launched by the Rainforest Alliance , an international conservation organisation that certifies tropical agricultural and other products for environmental and social responsibility, and is distributed in the US by Vintage Chocolates.
Other products certified as sustainable by the Alliance include coffee, bananas and timber, and many are sold by leading food companies such as Kraft or Chiquita.
The Alliance said that it was widely accepted that the best chocolate was produced from cocoa that grows in the shade and is tended by farmers who use small-scale, low-impact techniques, such as those employed the Plantations Arriba producers. Furthermore, sustainable cocoa farming such as that practised in Ecuador by Plantations Arriba was an effective way of combating environmental damage from large-scale, full-sun, chemical-intensive bulk cocoa operations.
The chocolate, said to offer "exotic, jungle accents and aromas, a notable lack of acidity and bitterness, a higher concentration of cocoa than sugar and a longer lasting flavour than ordinary bulk chocolate", is currently available only in the US, although if it proves to be a success it could be rolled out in Europe alongside other Rainforest Alliance products - notably certified coffee - which are already available there.
According to the Rainforest Alliance's Sarah W. O'Braitis, the organisation's sustainable certification programme is the only international programme to cover both social and environmental criteria and address economic vitality.
"Sustainability must include all three concepts and so the Rainforest Alliance's comprehensive guidelines that producers meet are unique compared to other certifications in that they are truly sustainable," she said, adding that this would form the core of the marketing campaign for the chocolate, as it did for other Rainforest Alliance products.
Plantations Arriba Chocolate is being rolled out to upmarket restaurants and retailers in New York, where the Rainforest Alliance is headquartered, and will also be available through independent retailers, speciality and health food stores "interested in promoting natural, unadulterated chocolate".
O'Braitis said that despite the chocolate's gourmet market positioning, there was no price difference between this product and traditional bulk chocolate. "Though the product is made with high quality ingredients, and the farmers have had to invest in changes on the ground, not to mention the added value afforded by the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval, the costs are kept down because Vintage Chocolates (the makers of Plantations) buys the cocoa beans directly from the farmer so there is little that is absorbed between the producer and end-consumer."
Charging a premium price for chocolate which costs little more than the standard equivalent - possible, the Alliance argues because of the quality difference - should maximise the returns for Vintage Chocolates, but this is also good news for the Ecuadorian growers.
"Vintage Chocolates reinvests in the farming co-operatives and in turn is then able to secure more of the premium cocoa beans, without having to increase the cost of the product to the consumer,"O'Braitis said.
Native Ecuadorian cocoa, from which Plantations Arriba is made, is particularly prized for its flavour and aroma. In the early 1900s, Ecuador was one of the world's leaders in growing and processing high quality cocoa for world markets - the country's long coastal plain was covered by lush forest, and cocoa farms flourished beneath the rainforest canopy.
But various plant diseases arrived in the 1920s and later, a series of government disincentives for high-quality cocoa processing resulted in declines in production and quality. The native cocoa grown under the species-rich rainforest canopy became widely displaced by an inferior hybrid version that is grown in deforested, full-sun fields, the Alliance said.
The Rainforest Alliance and its Ecuadorian conservation partner Conservación y Desarrollo (C&D) have worked to restore Ecuador's native cocoa heritage since 1997, providing technical assistance for farmers and offering training for producers and processors, and as a result, traditional cocoa farming is returning in Ecuador.
For example, the C&D programme has allowed small farmers, who might otherwise be at the mercy of price fluctuations in the volatile cocoa market, to organise themselves into co-operatives with shared processing and sales facilities, computing, marketing and financial services. In addition, they have learned to properly sort, dry and ferment the beans using a co-operative processing facility, which reduces the number of defected, rotten cocoa beans and also happens to preserve the chocolate's antioxidant properties and its potassium content as well as its gourmet quality, helping them to command premium prices.
"We promoted environmental education, we strengthened the farmers' organisations and we helped women to organise themselves," said Mauricio Ferro, co-director of C&D. "I have seen radical changes take place in those communities - the quality of life has improved greatly. They are protecting water resources and reforesting."
Based on the success of the Ecuadorian cocoa-growing communities, the C&D model is being replicated within Ecuador and internationally. As a result, the supply chain for high-quality, sustainable chocolate is growing and the products are becoming increasingly available to consumers, said Tensie Whelan, executive director of the Rainforest Alliance.
"Thanks to buyers like Vintage Chocolate, cocoa co-operatives that commit to total quality know that there is a market that rewards them for their efforts," said Whelan.
The timing of the launch of the Rainforest Alliance's chocolate could not be better. Recent data from the Germany-based Fairtrade Labelling Organisations (FLO) association, which groups together the national Fairtrade organisations in 16 countries worldwide, show that the situation for cocoa improved dramatically in 2003.
Not only did total sales increased by 109.7 per cent year-on-year, reaching 3,473.2 metric tons compared to 1,656 tons in 2002, but the US also leapfrogged all of the 15 other nations to become the biggest market, accounting for 922 tons compared to just 2.1 tons in 2002.
The UK, long-time market leader, was in second place with 902 tons, but Italy (346 tons) leapfrogged both Germany (343 tons) and Switzerland (275 tons) to reach third place with growth of 112 per cent. There were other big gains in Belgium (where sales rose from 2.9 tons to 61 tons) and in France (32 tons to 227 tons).
While Plantations Arriba is not a Fairtrade chocolate per se - it is certified by the Rainforest Alliance rather than Transfair, the 'official' Fairtrade certification agency in the US - it shares most of the same basic principles, and is, therefore, likely to benefit from the same clear market growth - both in the US and Europe.