The University of Arizona

Representing environment and development – tracing links between drivers, representations and power dynamics in cocoa sustainability and beyond

Judith Krauss


How much do misleading representations matter? This article examines carefully constructed narratives of engagement in 'sustainable' cocoa production initiatives, which fail to mention one of the actual key drivers: the need to shore up production in the long term in an embattled sector. Consequently, representations also downplay the need for systemic change, reproducing the power asymmetries they claim to change. The research seeks to establish to what degree public-facing communication differs from underlying priorities in terms of forefronting altruism over necessity, and whether this is problematic for the initiatives' overall outcome. Through semi-structured interviews, focus-group discussions, documentary analysis and participant observation in Latin America and Europe, it reviews relations in two cocoa sustainability initiatives with environmental foci. Crucially, the research establishes a link between representations, underlying priorities and the degree to which they (re)produce pre-existing power asymmetries between global North and global South, private sector and other stakeholders in the industry, speaking to a variety of political ecology questions. It argues that public-facing, altruism-focused communication distracts from the sector's underlying systemic issues: the emphasis on altruism works to reduce pressure to transform power asymmetries and omnipresent inequalities.

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