On 15 February 2023, after a 20-hour journey, a team consisting of staff from Tropenbos Democratic Republic of Congo, community leaders and a representative of a cocoa buyer, arrived at the airport in Accra. They were welcomed by Tropenbos Ghana, who invited them for a 10-day visit to learn about cocoa sector in Ghana. The visit provided a great opportunity for learning and exchange within the Tropenbos International network. At the end of the learning visit, the team from DRC shared their observations about the impact of cocoa production on landscapes and important lessons for cocoa in DRC.
In DRC, cocoa production has been steadily growing over the last 15 years. In the Bafwasende landscape, where Tropenbos DR Congo works, cocoa production is considered an important opportunity for generating economic benefits by local communities and indigenous people. People in the region live in extreme poverty and improvement of their livelihoods and access to additional income is the priority for most families. For Tropenbos DRC cocoa is a relatively new commodity to work on, as well as for the farmers in the area and government officials in charge of agricultural development, environment, and trade. There was a need to learn more about the sector and its opportunities and risks.
Read: Promoting cocoa agroforestry in the Bafwasende landscape, DR Congo
Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa, making it a good place to learn more about the cocoa sector. In Ghana, cocoa has been a key commodity for nearly a century, and this has had a big impact on the landscapes in the south of Ghana, both positive and negative. It has driven widespread deforestation, and many landscapes are dominated by monoculture cocoa, with only relatively small forest reserves remaining, often also encroached by cocoa farms. And though cocoa has contributed a lot to the national economy and created livelihood opportunities, farmers in Ghana still earn far below what is considered a living income. Without any deliberative effort towards more sustainable cocoa production, we could suppose that the Bafwasende landscape will follow a similar pathway as the landscapes in the south of Ghana have done over the past decades. The learning visit thus provided a sneak-peek into a potential future scenario for the landscape in DRC, and could bring forward important lessons, key opportunities and pitfalls that should be avoided. At the same time, in recent years there is a lot of attention in the sector for sustainability, and many actors are promoting cocoa agroforestry systems in Ghana. We could learn from these initiatives about what does and does not work well.
The learning journey took the team from the capital Accra, through Eastern, Ashanti and Western North regions of Ghana. Along the way, they met with smallholder cocoa farmer groups, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), government institution representatives, cocoa companies and academia. It was an intense but insightful journey. The team from DRC observed how cocoa in Ghana is not an individual matter for the farmer, but a national issue and the basis of the economy, with strong involvement of government state agencies play an important role in establishing the necessary infrastructure, regulating the sector and stabilizing prices. But participants also noted the price farmers receive for their cocoa is significantly lower in Ghana than in DR Congo. The team also noticed an important role for farmer cooperatives, and praised the collaboration between cooperatives and civil society in the Ghana cocoa civil society platform. They were also inspired by the strong female cocoa farmers that they met during their visit.
An important lesson for the Bafwasende landscape in DR Congo, was the need to avoid deforestation and the establishment of monoculture cocoa plots. The team saw in Ghana how the loss of forest and trees seems to worsen the impacts of extreme weather events. They also saw how intensive cocoa production has depleted the soil, and farmers are now highly dependent on agro-inputs which raises production cost and damages the environment. They noticed how the high dependence on cocoa, is causing problems for access to food in communities because all available land is put under cocoa production with limited land for food production.
During the field visits, the team learned more about different cocoa agroforestry models, and how these can provide many benefits to farmers and their landscapes. But adoption of agroforestry remains an issue in both Ghana and DR Congo. Therefore, all participants of the learning visit highlight that it is important to understand cost and benefits of agroforestry from farmers perspectives, looking at both financial and non-financial dimensions, as well as concerns and perceived risks by cocoa farmers. Moreover, the team learned that in parts of Latin America, farmers achieve much higher cocoa yields that in both Ghana and DR Congo, and were interested in understanding the factors that contribute to these high yields. This provides an interesting starting point for joint learning and research within the Tropenbos International network.
On 24 February, the DR Congo team started their journey back home, full of new ideas and insights. Based on the visit, Tropenbos DR Congo and the local authorities plan to intensify their work on land-use planning to reduce the impact of cocoa farming on forestry and together with the cocoa buying company, they will promote sustainable cocoa production models.