Cocoa Farming: The Key to Reversing Deforestation in West Africa

Co-authored by Alex Groome

Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jnr holding dried cocoa beans.
Cocoa farmer David Kebu Jnr holding dried cocoa beans.

The industrial chocolate industry is driving deforestation in West Africa on a devastating scale, according to recent articles published in The Guardian and Reuters. The Ivory Coast is the biggest victim—once 25% of the country was covered in rainforest, now less than 4% remains. Despite the widespread destruction it is responsible for, could agroforestry hold the key to restoring tropical rainforests and farmer livelihoods in the region?

A majority of the world’s cocoa (70%) is produced by two million small-scale farmers on less than five acres of land. Farmers are struggling to produce healthy harvests due to pests and diseases, aging cocoa trees and declining soil health. Farmers often lack access to information, technical assistance and financial resources to overcome these challenges, but more importantly, they are vulnerable to volatile international market prices and are often paid less than 80 cents (USD) per day.

Grown as a part of a diverse community-led agroforestry systems, cocoa may hold the key for small-scale farmers to tackle poverty, become climate resilient, cope with volatile market prices and restore and protect rainforests.

Agroforestry, Fair Trade and Small-Scale Farmers

Agroforestry is a dynamic, ecologically-based, natural resource management approach that promotes the integration of diverse food, fodder, timber and shade trees in agricultural landscapes. Once installed, well-maintained systems require little inputs like fertilizers and are naturally resistant to pests and diseases, cutting costs and labor for farmers.

Fair Trade small-scale farmer organizations and cooperatives provide one pathway for communities in the Global South to organize to effectively implement agroforestry and become more economically resilient by selling directly to customers and negotiating fair prices. In Konye, Cameroon, KONAFCOOP cocoa farmers are setting a hopeful example of this model. They’re producing a good quantity of excellent quality cocoa, regenerating land and mimicking natural forest systems to create a healthy and resilient agroecosystems.

Serendipalm aims to integrate oil palm and cocoa with other crops to establish diverse and resilient agroforestry system.
Serendipalm aims to integrate oil palm and cocoa with other crops to establish diverse and resilient agroforestry system.

Social enterprises, like Serendipalm, are pushing the envelope of diversified organic & fair trade production in Ghana. Serendipalm works with hundreds of small-scale farmers to produce organic and fair trade palm oil and cocoa on diversified small plots. Core to farmer livelihoods and ecological resilience is the drive to replant diversified and dynamic agroforestry systems on degraded land. Dynamic agroforestry systems can provide employment and multiple income streams, while fostering biodiversity and sequestering carbon.

Scaling Agroforestry Initiatives

A little-known tool for scaling out ecological and regenerative farming practices, like agroforestry, rapidly and effectively is peer-to-peer, farmer-to-farmer training. Emerging from Central America in the 1970s, the farmer-to-farmer movement has fueled the training of thousands of peasant farmers by facilitating the exchange of practical experiences and best practices.

Crowdfunding for Community-led Solutions

Grow Ahead, an initiative of Fair World Project, is crowdfunding for a farmer-to-farmer training for small-scale farmer cooperatives in the region on dynamic agroforestry. Set to take place in 2018, the training will bring together 10 organic and fair trade farmer organization representatives from Ghana, Ivory Coast, Togo and Burkina Faso. The goal? Train farmer “pollinators” to implement and scale out agroforestry practices in their home communities and organizations.

Grow Ahead is also crowdfunding to plant trees in agroforestry systems to support climate resilience, community food security and carbon sequestration. Three of the 100 top climate solutions identified by Project Drawdown are agroforestry-based and if implemented globally could sequester 57.67 gigatons of CO2.

“The program is geared towards boosting the economic resilience of farmers by diversifying their sources of income. Through agroforestry we can tackle climate change and grow vibrant food forests around the globe while maintaining and preserving biodiversity,” says Ryan Zinn, Director of Grow Ahead.

Pathways Forward

Agroforestry, coupled with community-led cooperative models of organizing and farmer-to-farmer training, can quickly and effectively be scaled up and out to reverse deforestation and regenerate soil health in West Africa and other parts of the world. In order to develop resilient systems for cocoa, we need to partner with small-scale farmers. We can reverse deforestation—and we can do it while we grow cocoa.

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