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Sustainability of West African cocoa growing questioned

By Jane Byrne , 11-Apr-2011

Cocoa farming has been a contributor to deforestation and degradation in West Africa due to limited fertilizer use as well as outdated crop husbandry methods, claim two research groups in a newly published study in Environmental Management.

The scientists, based at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), report “increasing fertilizer use on cocoa-timber farms would have spared roughly 2 million hectares of tropical forest from being cleared or severely degraded.”

Strategies to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity in West Africa must focus on transforming cocoa along with cassava and palm oil farming practices from traditional to modern science-based methods, with increased use of fertilizer, the authors argue.

They note that funding from the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) programmes, devised at the UN climate change summit in Copenhagen, could support such an initiative. Rainforest nations are currently working to develop proposals for REDD schemes.

Cocoa production in West Africa is an important commercial sector and a source of livelihoods for about two million households in the region. The Ivory Coast, followed by Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon, now accounts for 70 per cent of global cocoa supply.

The researchers report that cocoa production in West Africa’s Guinean Rainforest (GRF) region has doubled since 1987 but they point out that most of this increase was fuelled by clearing forest areas causing biodiversity loss and high carbon emissions.

"There are no longer any frontier forests in West Africa for future generations to exploit," said IITA agricultural economist Jim Gockowski.

The main cause of this environmental change has been the expansion of smallholder agriculture that depends on environmentally destructive practices like slash-and-burn and land clearing, the study reports.

The IITA said that systematic use of fertilizers in science based farming has already achieved impressive cocoa yield increases on a limited scale in parts of the GRF.

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