The Chocolate Solution

West Africa’s Guinean Rainforest once stretched unbroken from Guniea to Cameroon. Today, however, just 18% of the forest remains, in part due to the rapid expansion of slash-and-burn agriculture by small farmers growing cocoa, the source of chocolate. Enabling chocolate farmers to buy better seeds and more fertilizer — and boost production without felling more trees – may be one the best and cheapest ways to save the remaining forest, argues a new analysis. But the “fertilizers for forests” strategy faces major hurdles.

West African nations – especially Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon – now supply about 70% of the world’s cocoa, Jim Gockowski and Denis Sonwa of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture report in Environmental Management. Many farmers grow the small, evergreen trees (Theobroma cacao) in the shade, but some farmers boost yields by planting it in open sunlight – sometimes in cleared forest patches.

Today, cocoa farming “is the most widespread land use system” in the Guinean Rainforest, and over the last 20 years it has deforested or degraded some 2.3 million hectares. That’s partly because low yields cause farmers to pursue “land consuming” rather than “land saving” strategies. They’ll clear and plant new patches to boost cocoa harvests, for instance, rather than trying to coax bigger yields from existing fields.

One of the best ways to reverse that trend, Gockowski and Sonwa concluded after an extensive analysis, would be to enable farmers to buy better seeds and more fertilizer. Such technologies – which have been available since the 1960s – could have prevented the loss of more than 21,000 square kilometers of forest over the last few decades, they estimate, and avoided extensive carbon emissions.

Currently, the region’s farmers use less that 4 kilograms of fertilizer per hectare, a level that “may have been logical in 1960, when West African populations were only 25% of today’s levels and forest land was still relatively abundant,” they write. But “that choice is no longer tenable in a context where only 15–20% of the [forest] remains and populations have trebled in size… Strategies to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity in West Africa must focus on transforming agricultural practices from traditional to modern science-based methods.” Such “fertilizers for forest” efforts have already “achieved impressive yield increases on a limited scale,” they add.

Delivering improved cocoa-growing technology to West Africa’s small farmers, however, “will require overcoming many challenges,” including the lack of adequate banking systems, chemical manufacturers, roads and research institutes. Some of the money needed to solve these problems, however, could come from ongoing global negotiations to fund efforts in developing nations to “reduce carbon emissions due to deforestation and degradation” (REDD). Using REDD money to increase crop yields, they argue, could be an easier, cheaper and more effective alternative to other strategies. David Malakoff | January 13, 2011

Source: Gockowski, J., & Sonwa, D. (2010). Cocoa Intensification Scenarios and Their Predicted Impact on CO2 Emissions, Biodiversity Conservation, and Rural Livelihoods in the Guinea Rain Forest of West Africa. Environmental Management DOI: 10.1007/s00267-010-9602-3

Image © Furchin