Key points

  • As companies, NGOs, and experts look to agroforestry to solve many of the sustainability challenges facing the cocoa sector, Mighty Earth analyst Sam Mawutor argues that the cocoa agroforestry ‘revolution’ must be one led by farmers
  • This article is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.

Over recent years, consumers have become increasingly aware of the bitter-sweet legacy left by the chocolate industry in the countries that supply a majority of the world’s cocoa.

While cocoa has provided a critical source of revenue for smallholder farmers and governments in West Africa, cocoa growing communities have also suffered from years of predatory market practices, declining commodity prices, and unfair terms of trade.

These perverse market dynamics – coupled with things such as conflicting agriculture and forestry policies, onerous land and tree tenure laws that penalize farmers, and low productivity by poor farm management practices – have contributed to severe problems in the cocoa sector. These include farmer poverty, rampant deforestation, persistent child labor, frequent pesticide poisonings, and declining food and livelihood security.

Just two countries – the Ivory Coast and Ghana – between them account for 60% of the world’s cocoa production. And it is in these two countries where the issues of farmer poverty, deforestation and child labor are most prevalent.

The good news is that these problems are now recognized by cocoa traders, chocolate companies and public officials in Ghana and Ivory Coast, as well as in consumer countries. Most major chocolate companies now have sustainable cocoa sourcing policies in place that intend to address deforestation, child labor, living incomes, and other issues.

Furthermore, collective efforts taken by industry and governments, such as through the Cocoa and Forests Initiative (CFI), have promised to end deforestation, and to set up joint monitoring mechanisms to respond to incidents of forest clearance.

The bad news, though, is that these individual and collective efforts have been slow to yield results on the ground. The reasons for this are many and varied, but include insufficient efforts to trace indirect cocoa supply chain sources, structural problems in cocoa commodity markets that fail to adequately incentivize sustainable cocoa, ‘blame-gaming’ between companies and government departments, and a failure to listen to the needs of farmers and bring them into the development of industry-wide solutions as equal partners.

As a result, recent assessments by Mighty Earth and other NGOs show that most chocolate companies are still failing to guarantee consumers products that are truly free from environmental destruction and human rights violations. To end deforestation, restore soil health and biodiversity into cocoa farming systems, uplift the economic position of cocoa-producing households, and end child labor on cocoa farms, industry actors and governments agencies must work with farmers on an entirely different approach to cocoa production.

A dynamic cocoa-agroforest farm in Sefwi Asempaneye in Ghana. Photo credit: Samuel Mawutor
A dynamic cocoa-agroforest farm in Sefwi Asempaneye in Ghana. Photo credit: Samuel Mawutor

Agroforestry: the future of cocoa

Over the past years, agroforestry has started to dominate discussions around how to achieve ecological restoration in cocoa landscapes. Put simply, agroforestry refers to agricultural systems that integrate trees alongside other crops, such as cereal crops, root crops, other tree species, and even sometimes livestock production. The key principle within agroforestry systems is that of diversification: avoiding monoculture farming practices where one single crop (or tree) dominates the entire farm.

Although there is increasing debate on how agroforestry can be introduced to the cocoa landscape or expanded, government officials in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, as well as many companies within the cocoa industry, are supporting different forms of agroforestry implementation. There is also a growing consensus that agroforestry needs to be farmer-centered to ensure ownership and uptake, as it is they who bear the heaviest task of restoring degraded forests and improving local agro-ecosystems in cocoa landscapes

D Transitioning towards cocoa agroforestry provides a perfect opportunity to pivot away from the top-down industry models that have proven deeply unsustainable and exploitative. To date, however, small farmers largely remain at the periphery of the key cocoa agroforestry discussions happening now in the CFI and elsewhere.

The time has therefore come for the industry to move instead towards a farmer-centric approach: one by farmers and for farmers, that meets their development aspirations, and contributes to improved livelihoods and protection of their lands, and provides a sustainable future for them, their families, and the sector as a whole.

Why is agroforestry attractive to cocoa farmers?

Farmers’ interests in agroforestry vary from immediate benefits, to long-term considerations. In the short- term, food trees provide shade for young growing cocoa, while indigenous timber trees help to secure long-term access to cocoa producing lands in the long term.

While food trees help the onset of young cocoa plants, additional food crops, spices, and canopy-tolerant commercial crops improve ecological composition of the farms, as well diversifying household diet and incomes. In addition, by adopting diversified farming practices, farmers can improve the soil carbon capture of their farms,  reduce the use of costly and often hazardous chemical inputs, and boost the presence of pollinators.

Benefits of Cocoa Agroforestry Systems to Farmers

  •        Drought resilience: Additional ground and canopy cover helps to retain moisture on farms, and can create a micro-climate that helps act as a buffer to extreme weather events, such as droughts.
  •        Soil health and farm longevity:  Farmers using agroforestry systems typically keep their trees for much longer, because their soil health is maintained due to the constant recycling of organic matter. Monoculture farms leave soil more impoverished. This means having to replant more frequently, which hurts farmers.
  •        Income diversification: When the price of cocoa is high, monocropping farmers do well, but when it is low, farmers entirely reliant on cocoa sink into dire poverty. By having several crops in a farm, mixed, farmers gain a variety of revenue streams. That can be a buffer for them financially when cocoa prices drop.
  •        “Retirement trees”:  The potential to receive timber revenues for planted trees when they mature in 25 or 30 years is a co-benefit for securing their land interests. You can think of this as ‘retirement trees’ for farmers who lack a safety net like those that exist in wealthier countries.
  •        Enhanced food security: Many cocoa farmers spend a high proportion of their income on food. By receiving food trees to plant throughout their cocoa farms, they can increase their food independence and food security, and reduce their food expenditures which helps their income.
  •        Reduced expenses on agrochemicals: Because agroforestry systems use diversified cropping to maintain soil health and recycle nutrients, there is less need to apply synthetic fertilizers. Diversified systems are also less vulnerable to pest infestations and disease than monoculture farms, reducing the need for pesticide purchases. This also carries health benefits to farming families, who have less (or no) exposure to hazardous chemicals often used on cocoa monoculture farms.
  •        Earning money from conservation finance: this can help farmer income but it has to be done the right way to be organized and farmer-friendly.


Obstacles to a farmer-driven agroforestry

Land and tree tenure laws

Current land and tree tenure laws in Ghana and Ivory Coast incentivize against long-term land and tree farm stewardship by farmers, and need to be reformed. The current Ghanaian regulatory regime that places the burden of proof of tree ownership on farmers is inappropriate and must be challenged. If tree registration does not provide a means of securing additional investment for farmers or add direct economic value to their property rights, then it remains flawed

Agroforestry and cocoa oversupply

Farmers are persuaded to adopt cocoa agroforestry with a reasonable expectation that the market would deliver higher and better prices for the beans they sell. Despite its other benefits, agroforestry cannot be a replacement for paying farmers a living income for the cocoa beans they sell. Collapsing market prices would reverse this forest/farm ecological restoration effort when this reasonable expectation is unmet. This conflict emphasizes the need for agroforestry discussions to tie into policy discussions on living income, cocoa production, and child labor.

A fork in the road for cocoa

It will take a long-term approach to reverse the many years of predatory farming practices inspired by market demands, declining commodity prices, and unfair terms of trade that have led to the social problems and environmental degradation that has plagued the cocoa sector. At the heart of this approach to restoration must be a transition to agroforestry systems defined by farmers. It’s time that the farmer’s voice becomes the most important in cocoa-agroforestry, and hence in determining the future of the cocoa and chocolate industries.

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