Looking to the Past to Inspire the Future of Cocoa Agroforestry

There are few places on earth where I feel more relaxed, refreshed and joyful than when walking through cocoa farms in Ghana. While many people might choose pristine beaches or alpine mountains as places of earthly repose or invigoration, I’ve always found a real haven under the canopy of cocoa trees. I love the rhythm that comes from trying to walk quickly while shuffling my feet to push through a thick layer of dry cocoa leaves. The path often winds and bends, climbing hills and descending into small stream beds, all the while surrounded by sturdy cocoa trees, colorful cocoa pods in a range of yellows, oranges, reds and purples, and buttressed at times by large, old forest trees. In some farms there are a good number of shade trees reaching up above the cocoa, while in other farms there are none. In some farms the cocoa trees are old, tired, and diseased, and in other farms the cocoa trees look vigorous, well maintained and productive. Apart from the environment, what I appreciate most from these walks is talking to farmers about what they are doing and why. Now, more than ever, farmers talk about the unpredictable rains and the changing climate. Yet despite their challenges, farmers always maintain a healthy mix of humor, humility, and hope.

Loss of natural forests

In Ghana, as across much of the forest zone of West Africa, cocoa farming is quite possibly the most common and important way of life in the rural areas; a critically important source of income for farm families, a part of the cultural identity, and a major driver of the national economy. Cocoa farming has spread and grown in importance, it has also steadily come to replace natural forests, and this now presents a complex set of challenges for farmers and for the global community in light of the very real threats from climate change and those who rely upon the rainfall and other ecosystem services from the forests. The transition has not been stark, but slow and progressive.

The oldest farmers and cocoa history books recount stories from the past of cocoa farms that resembled forests, and were still highly productive, but I had never personally experienced such a farm in Ghana until a few years ago. This is because, following decades of research and instruction which said that shade limits cocoa’s productive potential, coupled with the arrival of chainsaws and farmer-to-farmer messaging and advice, most cocoa in Ghana has come to be grown on farms that have no shade, or low to moderate levels of shade—about 18 large shade trees per hectare is what is recommended, but not consistently achieved.

A farmer who resisted cutting down his forest

The first time I visited Atta Kojo’s cocoa farm in 2014, I was dumb-struck to find cocoa trees enclosed within a “forest” of native tree species and an environment alive with birdsong. The cocoa trees, which were planted about 50 years ago, sit as the understory of a multi-layered cocoa agroforest that contains over 120 different timber and forest species per hectare(!). The farm itself covers more than 40 hectares in total, and in its hey-day was over 60 hectares.

Atta Kojo inherited the farm from his brother, who inherited it from their father, and this portion has been largely maintained as his father left it. According to Atta Kojo, his father kept so many native shade trees and allowed others to grow over the cocoa because the soils are sandy, and not having fertilizer to nourish the soil, he felt that the best way to keep the soil moist and to enhance the growth of the young cocoa trees was to leave or plant more trees to give the cocoa farm a good shade environment. It worked. Over the decades this high-shade cocoa agroforest has sustained two generations of the family, sent many of the children and grandchildren to school, enabled them to build houses and buy a taxi, and supported other farming endeavors, while also providing often overlooked environmental services to the surrounding farms and cocoa landscape.

A landscape program that is a beacon for the future

Today, Atta Kojo’s farm stands out in the vast cocoa landscape surrounding Kakum National Park as a relic from the past; a legacy of the decisions that were taken over a half century ago. And for his father, these decisions paid off. But today I wonder what decisions Atta Kojo will take in the very near future. His cocoa trees are extremely old and need to be replanted, but the new farm investment costs are high, the rains have become unpredictable due to climate change, and every day loggers offer him money for the timber growing over the cocoa. For most farmers, including Atta Kojo, the risks and trade-offs in the short term are difficult to balance in favor of growing a high shade cocoa agroforest for the long term.

On the one hand, I see Atta Kojo’s predicament as a cautionary reminder of the vulnerability of natural forests and agroecosystems. But on the other hand, I see his cocoa agroforest as a beacon of hope for the future—an example of what the cocoa landscape needs to go back to in order to be sustainably productive and resilient. The truth behind this hope, however, is that encouraging tens of thousands of cocoa farmers to make this transition means that we need to fundamentally change our approach.

The Kakum Cocoa Agroforestry Landscape Program that we are implementing in an exciting collaboration with two global chocolate companies — The Hershey Company and Lindt & Sprüngli — has just this agenda in mind. The program operates through a consortium of corporate, government and NGO partners who are guided by a common vision and committed to collaborating for the sustainability of the cocoa forest landscapes, which encompasses Ghana’s Kakum National Park, a tropical forest surrounded by hundreds of culturally unique cocoa farming communities. The program is founded on the development of strong, locally driven landscape governance systems, and the provision of more widespread and consistent support to cocoa farmers to enable them to increase their yields sustainably. It also incorporates livelihood diversification through the introduction of novel green value chains from native botanical species, and the integration of community-led monitoring systems. The program values collaboration, co-investment, dialogue, thoughtful management planning, and bottom-up learning.

With this approach, I am immensely hopeful that we can catalyze a new era of cocoa farmer decision-making through which cocoa can “reforest” the landscape, while fostering resilience to climate change and a rejuvenation of farmers’ livelihoods. But this future depends on collectively learning lessons from the past and then adapting them to the present. Cocoa needs shade trees and the forest to survive, and cocoa agroforestry systems can enable cocoa farmers to thrive (like Atta Kojo’s father), but only if we drive the scale, scope and nature of our efforts towards greater collaboration and more integrated approaches across farms, communities and the landscape as a whole.

The most common shade tree in Atta Kojo’s cocoa agroforest is called Tree of God or “Nyamedua” in the local Twi language. A large tree with smooth, grey bark that provides year-round shade and always bring moisture and dew to the soil, even in the dry season, its name is not by chance, but due to the many blessings it provides. For me, it would be a real blessing if, in the future, I am able to take a long cocoa walk across the Kakum landscape, under a healthy cocoa canopy that was shaded by many forest trees, and listen to farmers talk about the many reasons that they now keep trees in their farms.

For More information on Hershey’s Sustainability report please click here.
Please also see Beatrice Moulianitaki, Blog, Head of Sustainable Sourcing for The Hershey Company.
For additional information on the monitoring and evaluation project that Lindt is doing with Nature Conservation Research Center (NCRC) please look here.

Click here to send Dr. Rebecca Ashley Asare an email.


More to explore


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *