Shaded cocoa can protect forests: Here’s what it takes

Recent research led by MOCCA, CATIE and ICRAF documents the conditions linking cocoa farming to reforestation and deforestation in the municipality of Waslala, in Nicaragua and the district of Irazola, Ucayali, Peru.

This research suggests that reforestation and deforestation processes vary at the farm and landscape levels and depend on national and local contexts.

The potential of cocoa farming to enhance tree cover and provide ecosystem services depends on what type and how much shaded cocoa is planted, and how these farms are placed and managed across landscapes.

In Nicaragua, most experts agreed that cocoa farming functions as a key agent of reforestation to enhance tree cover in the agricultural landscape.

The farming models promoted by development agencies, governments, and the private sector were described as “agroforestry systems” where cocoa is grown in small plots, between 0.7–1.5 hectare per farm with 833 to 1,100 plants per hectare, yet average crop yields were low; in the range of 250 to 450 kg of dry bean per hectare annually.

Moreover, cocoa shade canopies retained up to 22 shade species planted in the range of 80 to 180 trees in one hectare and displayed in three vertical layers (small trees-less than <10 m tall, medium size trees between 10–20 m tall, and large trees (more than >20 m tall) containing 50%, 30%, and 20% of total tree density, respectively.

Analysis of images of land use in the Waslala municipality between the years 2000 and 2015 showed that the major drivers of deforestation were livestock, small-scale agriculture, and timber harvest from legal and illegal sources.

Although cocoa covers only 2% of the territory, the fact that the crop is planted over previously deforested land, degraded pastures, and sometimes replaces old, unproductive coffee plots, shaded cocoa is in fact preventing the expansion of other land uses with less environmental value and landscape restoration potential and reduces pressure on nearby forests.

Shaded cocoa is (…) preventing the expansion of other land uses with less environmental value and landscape restoration potential and reduces pressure on nearby forests.

In Peru, cocoa farming plays a crucial role as an agent of reforestation to enhance tree cover in any given landscape.

The farming models promoted in the country are considered to be “various types of shading systems” where cocoa is grown in plots ranging from 2.5 to 3.5 ha per farm with 1,100 to 1,250 plants ha−1, better agronomic management (chemical and organic fertilization) is provided so farmers get higher yields (700–1,000 kg of dry bean per hectare in one year).

Shade tree richness and density ranges between 12-15 species and 60 and 120 individuals in one plot and shade canopies displayed two vertical layers (low: trees up to <10 m tall and medium size trees (height between 10–20 m), 60% of those trees occurred within the low layer and the remaining 40% were in the medium layer.

Assessment of images of land use between 2002 and 2015 showed that the major drivers of tree cover decline in the Irazola district were palm oil, small-scale agriculture, and pastures.

Cocoa, which covers 13% of the land, is mainly grown under shade trees contributing to secure tree-cover on agricultural landscapes, thus slowing deforestation.

The research team warned that depending on the context and the occurrence of sudden events along the supply chain (such as changes in cost and information requirements for certification, lack of access to safe markets for cocoa, fruits and timber, and pest and diseases outbreaks), this set of “shocks” can discourage farmers to plant more shaded cocoa or can lead to the abandonment of cocoa plantations.

This is because it is no longer attractive, so shaded cocoa farms might not be able to retain trees.

The cocoa sector might be quite sensitive to outer shocks and sudden events so anyone wanting to enhance the role of cocoa farming to restore the environment must focus on activities at the farm level and should combine actions toward landscape configuration, fair governance, trading models, and strengthening farmers’ knowledge.

In Waslala, Nicaragua, the conditions associated with reforestation were shaded cocoa models promoted by local NGOs, shade trees and other incentives including payment for environmental services and the provision of training services, access to safe markets to sale harvested cocoa and improved cocoa genetic material.

The contexts associated with deforestation were the age of the farmers, fluctuation of cocoa prices, low farm productivity, and weak legal frameworks.

In Irazola, Ucayali, Peru, the main factors relating cocoa farming to reforestation were access to safe markets, degree of technical knowledge, the high financial weight of cocoa on a family’s income, low cost certification, and the level of participation of cocoa farmers in cooperatives or associations.

The elements linking cocoa farming to deforestation were the influence of industry players in the decision-making over cocoa supply chain, lack of government intervention and weak legal frameworks, fluctuation of cocoa prices, and insecure land tenure rights.

The outcomes of this research could aid informed decisions in the cocoa sector to:

  1. Debate the best and profitable cocoa agroforestry models for organized farmers;
  2. Formulate policies for sustainable cocoa farming on a large scale; and
  3. Assess landscape restoration opportunities to maximize the role of cocoa farming as a reforestation agent in Latin America.
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