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Wrong way to chocolate: Turn back now

Time for cocoa industry to embrace sustainable agroforestry systems
A sign is shown on the roadside by cocoa trees
Although government policies are now shifting, this forest reserve in Ivory Coast has been encroached upon by cocoa cultivation (as seen in foreground here in 2017). CIFOR-ICRAF/Cathy Watson.

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At a recent gathering of leading researchers and practitioners in the cocoa sector, main topics of discussion included the continuing encroachment of “full sun” cocoa monoculture systems on tropical forests and the fact that fewer areas conducive for growing cocoa exist due to changing climate and rainfall patterns.

At the Sweet Sustainability: Cocoa Agroforestry Advantages: Creating a Win-Win for Nature, Farmers and Industry conference, hosted by Smithsonian Earth Optimism, Dennis Garrity, drylands ambassador for the U.N. Convention to Combat Desertification, pointed out that two currently accepted approaches to managing the crop are often conflated.

Cocoa agroforestry systems and zero-deforestation cocoa systems are fundamental goals to be achieved but, although they are interconnected, they are not the same, he said. 

“It is increasingly recognized, however, that all monoculture cocoa should, over time, be replaced with cocoa agroforestry, with progressively more robust agroforestry systems — that, among a number of other changes, will contribute toward a state of zero deforestation cocoa,” said Garrity, who is also chair of the Global EverGreening Alliance and formerly served as director-general of World Agroforestry (ICRAF).

“But we must admit that the journey has just begun and that there have been false starts and many dead-ends that have led to little real progress, so far, on the ground,” he said. “Hopefully, the lessons learned now will close off the dead ends and clarify our path forward.”

A commentary published by environmental news provider Mongabay details the dramatic impact of monoculture cocoa farming in Ivory Coast on protected forests.

“Cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire began in the 1950s in forests bordering Ghana, and progressively shifted west as trees were removed and soil exhausted,” wrote Cathy Watson, chief of partnerships at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and ICRAF. “Côte d’Ivoire lost 217,866 hectares of protected forest from 2001 to 2014 to monocultures of it.”

In 2017, the NGO Mighty Earth revealed the destruction of government forest reserves in Côte d’Ivoire by cocoa cultivation: out of 234, only six were still relatively intact. Deforestation outside reserves, largely due to cocoa, was also severe: 94 percent of Ivory Coast’s humid tropical forest was gone.

‘Many had known what was happening, but the Mighty Earth report was a turning point after which the crisis could be openly spoken of, she said.

“Cocoa agroforestry had long been of interest,” she added, explaining that ICRAF and the cocoa industry were aware that cocoa grew well with other trees in other locations, including Central America and in complex multi-strata agroforestry systems in Cameroon with up to 20 types of tree.

In 2014, ICRAF interviewed 355 Ivorian cocoa farmers and at that time, an overwhelming majority (338) knew the benefits of growing it with other trees, she wrote.

This news woke up major players in the cocoa sector, including multinationals like Mars Wrigley and Barry Callebaut, who began testing the concept and, in 2019,  Le Conseil du Café et Cacao, the main cocoa body in Ivory Coast acknowledged the opportunities presented by agroforestry.

For more information on this topic, please contact Cathy Watson at c.watson@cgiar.org.
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