Setting the Stage for Sustainable Cocoa Farming in Ghana

Continuing to look at certifications and more sustainable production of commodity crops in agricultural landscapes, the Landscapes Blog explores cocoa in West Africa today. Kassy Holmes, from the Climate Change Program of Rainforest Alliance, provides insight into an alternative production model that benefits both people and nature.

Ghana’s cocoa farmers have a long, intertwined relationship with trees. The first cocoa farm was established in Ghana in 1879, and cocoa farms have proliferated since, so that cocoa is now Ghana’s leading earner of foreign exchange. Although cocoa is naturally shade loving and is found growing beneath forest canopies, a combination of factors have resulted in much cocoa being grown without the nurturing shade of forests, and  the expansion of its  production has led to significant deforestation or degradation of tropical rainforest throughout much of today’s cocoa growing regions. Yet, alternative cocoa production models can maintain and enhance remnant forest cover, improve cultivation techniques (such as pruning and wise nutrient application), and even foster ecosystem restoration. In the Juabeso-Bia region of western Ghana, 300 kilometers northwest of the country’s capital Accra, the Rainforest Alliance is helping cocoa farmers reverse trends of tree cover loss by supporting a landscape-level transition to sustainable agriculture and addressing some of the underlying drivers of deforestation within this region.

An Emre tree within a cocoa farm casts an eerie shadow: it was barked and killed because of its perceived negative effects on the cocoa beneath it.

Historically Ghana’s cocoa farmers have been reluctant to maintain trees on their farms for two primary reasons.  Firstly, due to a lack of understanding of laws pertaining to tree rights, farmers were easily exploited. Many witnessed trees torn from their farms by loggers who paid little or no compensation and had scant regard for the damage they were causing to the valuable cocoa trees. This led farmers to deliberately kill trees using fire or by stripping the bark off (‘girdling’) to avoid attracting the attention of timber harvesters moving through the area. Today, the ghostly silhouettes of trees killed by this method can be seen across the Juabeso-Bia landscape. Another reason why trees are scarcely found within Ghana’s cocoa farms is because diseases that affect cocoa trees, such as black pod, are often incorrectly attributed to the presence of shade trees on farms, resulting in their removal.

The prospect of sustainable agriculture certification, combined with interest from chocolate makers who want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in their cocoa supply chain, is helping change deforestation patterns in Ghana. Rainforest Alliance’s training program to enable farmers to achieve certification to the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) Standard, has led to increased understanding amongst farmers about the functions and benefits of trees within and around cocoa farms. Knowledge of tree diseases and Ghana’s national tree ownership laws has also improved and farmers now feel empowered to protect their trees or obtain fair compensation for them if they are harvested.

A Juabeso-Bia cocoa farmer stands next to his preserved shade tree

Farming practices that surround sustainable agriculture certification can also result in significant ecological and community benefits. Farmers who maintain shade trees on their land benefit from increased biodiversity and nutrient rich soil that promotes long-term, sustainable crop yields. They may also benefit financially from participating in carbon markets. The Rainforest Alliance and other organizations, including the Nature Conservation and Research Center and Forest Trends, see sustainable agriculture certification as a means to help farmers capitalize on carbon financing through investments by farmers to reduce deforestation and enhance carbon stocks within the landscape. Together with Ghanaian farmers, we are developing carbon quantification methods, conducting tree inventories, calculating carbon stocks, and determining the net GHG benefits of their farms, thereby enhancing their capacity to participate in international carbon markets. New technologies, such as tablets and portable devices that can generate biomass and carbon stock data while in the field, may also provide exciting opportunities for community-led monitoring that helps farmers make better informed decisions about their land. Rainforest Alliance and local partners are piloting these methods to ensure that any such monitoring is driven by local community members – the group with the greatest stake in project success.

Although many of these efforts are only just beginning, increased education and training to promote climate-friendly, sustainable agriculture are setting the stage for improved cocoa farming in Ghana. Changing attitudes and actions towards forest and ecosystem restoration are being accomplished by linking incentives from markets to producers. In farmer field schools, growers are learning about best practices to increase yields and store carbon while also gaining access to seedlings and training needed to enhance restorative tree planting.  These pockets of progress point to great potential for future success: through their efforts to promote sustainable agriculture, Ghana’s small-holder farmers may ultimately have the power to collectively transform an ecologically barren region into a productive, flourishing landscape where cocoa, trees, and sustainable livelihoods thrive.

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One Response to Setting the Stage for Sustainable Cocoa Farming in Ghana

  1. Lee Gross says:

    Really enjoyed your post Kassy. In this case, sustainable agriculture certification, funded primarily by the private sector and supported by NGOs is increasing opportunities for farmers to education and training on best practices in cocoa production. I wondered while reading what the role of COCOBOD and other governemnt agencies was in agricultural extension? Given the concentration of cocoa production in countries such as Ghana and Cote d’ivore does is make more sense for large-scale and sustained investment by the private sector when the public sector fails? What questions or links (such as the link between best practices and productivity) do practitioners and researchers need to answer in order to better support such investments? Also, I understand COSA/RA have just finished an impact assessment study on cocoa in W. Africa. Will you provide a link when publically available. Thanks again!