By Jeffrey C. Milder, PhD, conservation scientist on the Rainforest Alliance’s Evaluation & Research team
Across the humid tropics, cocoa farming has followed a “boom and bust” cycle, with production peaking in each country for a few decades before farms become susceptible to cocoa tree diseases and soil exhaustion. In Indonesia, cocoa is now booming: production is rising and the world’s largest traders, processors and chocolate companies are expanding operations. But can Indonesia’s farmers ride this wave sustainably and avoid a bust that may threaten their livelihoods? Can the cocoa industry keep growing without degrading land and depleting biodiversity?
Scientific evidence suggests this is possible. With new cocoa varieties, optimal pruning and grafting, and organic fertilizers, farmers can significantly increase yields while maintaining soil health, curbing disease, and reducing pressure to expand production into existing forests. Partial shade cover—studies suggest about 40 percent may represent a “sweet spot”—helps create an ideal microclimate for cocoa while providing wildlife habitat.
Back on the farm, though, substantial challenges remain. Smallholder farmers, who grow most of the world’s cocoa, frequently lack investment capital, knowledge of sustainable practices, and suitable farm inputs, and may be skeptical of new methods. The Rainforest Alliance helps farmers clear these hurdles by providing training on the practices defined in the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard. The standard includes sustainable agronomic methods that improve productivity and yield alongside measures to protect biodiversity, water and soil. It also requires practices and investments that improve health, income, and wellbeing for farmers and their families. Farmers and producer groups complying with the standard may sell their cocoa as Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM.
Across the 11% global market share of Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa, interest in certification commonly begins with a chocolate company or trader that wants to certify its supply chain as sustainable. But in South Sulawesi (Indonesia), we are taking a different approach, building from the ground up to support a sustainable landscape that will attract buyers with a reliable supply of certified sustainable cocoa.
The work engages 13 communities in Bantaeng Regency, a lush slope at the southern tip of South Sulawesi. Bantaeng’s poorer upstream communities are more heavily wooded and abut the Gunung Lampobatang Protection Forest, the last remaining home of an endangered bird called the Lompobatang Flycatcher. These headwaters also support extensive downslope rice fields, other annual and perennial crops, and coastal fisheries. Throughout the landscape, cocoa is a common feature that binds together people, food, and nature. It also holds the opportunity to bring much greater benefits to local communities. Sustainable cocoa practices can simultaneously boost yields and farmer income, increase the conservation value of cocoa farms and the broader landscape, and generate the critical mass of cocoa supply needed to attract major buyers. An economically stable cocoa sector could also stave off pressures to convert cocoa farms, which can be conservation-friendly, to other, more destructive land uses.
The ground-up approach begins with the Rainforest Alliance’s new set of diagnostic and evaluation tools, a system that helps identify the regions, communities, and farmers best suited for sustainability initiatives—as well as the most effective training and technical assistance investments for each setting. The methods focus on the pillars of sustainable development (or of an “integrated landscape”): productivity, farm profitability, natural resource sustainability, biodiversity conservation, and household livelihoods. A community mapping process establishes farm boundaries (critical information for tracking cocoa yields) and identifies community needs and concerns. Farmer surveys provide detailed insight into existing cocoa farming and land management practices, as well as key priorities for win-win improvements. The “Household Economy Approach” methodology quantifies household assets, income streams, crop production, and food consumption to understand the drivers of poverty and vulnerability—data that clarify the opportunities and risks associated with cocoa intensification and provide sensitive indicators of changing livelihoods. Finally, the “Natural Ecosystem Assessment” surveys on-farm vegetation and the surrounding land-use context to provide a fine-scaled, sensitive set of proxy indicators of the landscape’s biodiversity value. Taken together, these methods shed light on the key factors required for landscape sustainability.
With this information in hand, the Rainforest Alliance works with its local partners to design training programs and forge market linkages that are not only profitable for farmers, but also strongly advance the two issues at the heart of our mission: biodiversity conservation and sustainable livelihoods. This same set of indicators is then tracked over time to understand how Rainforest Alliance-supported cocoa production affects social, economic, and environmental outcomes.
Can we turn the global boom-bust cocoa cycle into a permanent boom for farmers, traders, consumers, and biodiversity? The Rainforest Alliance believes that better local information—used in service of a farmer- and market-focused sustainable development strategy—is one important step on the path to success. For further information, please visit RA’s website to read about our cocoa work and approach to monitoring and impact evaluation.Photos by William Crosse, project M&E specialist on the Rainforest Alliance’s Evaluation & Research team.