Valentine's day is just around the corner, and I've been reminded in the last few days of a few of the reasons why I love trees.
One reminder came yesterday in The Diane Rehm Show. Rehm invited a panel of experts to discuss the state of the cacao tree -- which provides us those lovely pods filled with beans that, when fermented and roasted, are transformed into a favorite Valentine's gift: chocolate.
Save the chocolate trees
Scientists are hard at work trying to learn more about cacao trees so they can help farmers around the world produce stronger, healthier cacao trees -- ones more resistant to climate change, drought, pests and disease. They're doing this in part by mapping the genome of known varieties of cacao trees, and by exploring the Amazon to find wild, uncultivated strands that may be able to infuse greater genetic diversity to the current pool of cultivated chocolate trees.
Blights have taken out swaths of cacao trees, and changes in climate are currently threatening to shift some of the prime growing regions in Africa. Why is this a big deal? Because 60-70% of the world's chocolate comes from a relatively small region in the African countries of Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Liberia and Cameroon. The cacao trees there are not all that genetically diverse and are therefore more vulnerable to the same diseases and pests.
According to the show's panel, 95 percent of the world's cacao farms are small operations, and many of those are family-based. Because cacao trees love shade and thrive well mixed in with other crops, these small farms often grow and sell a variety of fruit, not just cocoa. Their livelihood depends on healthy cacao trees, as well as educational systems in place to help them sustain and improve their trees. If these trees get wiped out, it's not just major farming operations and corporations that will be in trouble.
I don't usually give much thought to where my chocolate comes from, but this show made me stop and think more about trees that I take for granted to give me the chocolate I so adore.
I'm admittedly picky about the kinds of chocolate I'll buy: the darker the better if it's in a bar, and if it's chocolate milk, it has to be Silk brand regular chocolate soy milk. No other brand (I've tried several and been disappointed), no light chocolate Silk (ugh, not worth it) and no dark chocolate almond milk (too sweet and thick). How about you? Do you love chocolate? Do you have a favorite? Or does it simply need to have the word chocolate in it for you to be happy?
Besides being a fan of chocolate, I'm also a fan of World Vision, a relief organization that focuses its efforts on child sponsorship in the most impoverished areas of the world. Its latest magazine arrived this past weekend, with a story that held the other reminder of why I love trees so much. (I had hoped to point you to the issue online, but the latest one doesn't appear to be on the site yet.)
World Vision's president, Rich Stearns, kicked off the magazine with an article called "The Famine That Never Happened," about the ongoing famine in the Horn of Africa. What amazed me was his statement that not one of World Vision's sponsored children in that region has died because of the drought and famine ravaging other parts of that region.
Stearns credits that to lessons learned in the Ethiopian famine in the 1980s, when World Vision came in to help local families recover then from the devastation caused by deforestation and drought. His description of the Antsokia Valley in Ethiopia really caught my attention:
Orange groves, maize, sorghum, and grazing farm animals blanket the valley today.
In the shadow of the surrounding hills, 20 million trees nourish the soil and bring
income as farmers sell their fruit. More than 90 percent of the valley's children are in
school. God has turned the parched ground into flowing springs.
During a more recent drought in 2000, farmers in Antsokia provided food for other
regions in Ethiopia. The formerly dry valley became an oasis amid drought. This
year World vision will phase out its work in the valley. We're no longer needed, as
the farmers there are reaping "a fruitful harvest." ...
In World Vision communities, farmers are learning how to conserve water and
promote rain by planting trees. ... This work is changing the future. Years from
now, we'll be talking again about the famine that never happened.
(World Vision Spring 2012: 4.)
I'm heartened by his mention of trees, and the crucial role they play in keeping an environment safe (or at least safer) from drought that leads to famine. His organization is encouraging a life-giving cycle: plant trees to strengthen the environment and use the fruit of those trees for a better livelihood and for protection from drought and famine.
So maybe this Valentine's Day, you'll consider sponsoring a child through World Vision. It costs $35 a month to give a child the gift of hope, a gift lasts a whole lot longer than flowers, or dinner out, or even your favorite chocolates.
I'd love to hear from you if you decide to sponsor a child. But I'd also love to hear about your favorite chocolate treat, too. Happy Valentine's Day a little early!