Eat chocolates - and save the Brazilian rainforest

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Maybe you can wolf down those chocolates you got for Christmas with a clear conscience after all. For, though they may do your waistline no good, they might just helpto save the world.

Maybe you can wolf down those chocolates you got for Christmas with a clear conscience after all. For, though they may do your waistline no good, they might just helpto save the world.

Most of the chocolate that comes from Brazil, a major producer and exporter- and some from other nations - is helping to preserve endangered rainforest, a new report published here reveals. And, the report says, with proper development, "forest chocolate" could rescue one of the world's most crucial and most threatened wildlife areas.

The area is Brazil's Atlantic Forest, which runs along the country's coast, from its eastern-most point near Recife to close to the Uruguayan border. It is among the richest ecosystems on the planet: 476 tree species have been found in a single hectare of the forest, compared to a typical 15 or 20 in temperate woodlands such as those in Britain or North America. The Worldwatch Institute, which produced the report, says that parts of the forest boast "the highest level of tree species diversity ever recorded anywhere on earth."

Yet it is also in far greater jeopardy than the much more celebrated Amazon rainforest, the focus of countless environmental campaigns. Only about seven per cent of its original extent remains, and it has been reduced to a green archipelago of forest fragments.

Cocoa - the main ingredient of chocolate - is one of its last remaining causes for hope, the report says. It is ideal for growing in the rainforest, as it needs constant water and flourishes in the shade of big trees.

"Farmers do not have to clear all their forest in order to make a living with it," says the institute. "It can be grown profitably under forest canopy and can, in effect, help to pay for rainforest conservation."

The report adds that "most Brazilian coffee" is grown in this way, under a system called "cabruca". This is not virgin rainforest; the bushes and smaller trees have largely been replaced by cacao trees - which grow the melon-sized fruit packed with cocoa beans - and the larger trees have been thinned out.

"But its value for conservation is considerable because so little undisturbed forest remains," the report says. "It still supports an extraordinary array of wildlife."

Twenty-three species of bat have been found in just one patch of cabruca forest. It is an important refuge for the beautiful and endangered golden lion tamarind, and a whole new genus of bird was identified in it in the 1990s.

Brazilian farmers have stuck with the system despite pressures that have led to their counterparts in other countries clearing the forest to grow cocoa more intensively, but at the cost of dousing them with artificial fertilisers and a cocktail of pesticides, often eventually exhausting the soil. Many other countries also grow cocoa under the shade of their forests, the report says, but none so extensively as Brazil.

The system, however, is becoming degraded, with too few saplings coming up to replace the big trees when they die. The farms have also been hit by low cocoa prices and by disease - although both of these have now been reversed.

The report says that the system should now be revived and extended to produce organic cocoa, save the rainforest and provide jobs and income. The institute has worked out a detailed plan to do this and is seeking investors.

Then it may truly be possible to present oneself as a chocoholic with a conscience.

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