Guest article

We can tackle cocoa-led deforestation in West Africa ...

By Renzo Verne

- Last updated on GMT

Satellite technology by Starling is playing a key role in stopping deforestation. Pic: Starling
Satellite technology by Starling is playing a key role in stopping deforestation. Pic: Starling

Related tags: Cocoa, deforestation, Environment, Sustainability

... But we have to focus on value creation for farmers, leverage technology, and scale-up solutions that already exist.

Recent reports show that UTZ, the leading certification body in the cocoa industry, has regularly certified cocoa from West African farms that have contributed to deforestation.

Should we really be surprised by this news? Certification standards aim to ensure compliance with a multitude of criteria: from good agricultural practices, to social and living conditions, and respect for the environment.

Yet realistically, how can a system underpinned by few teams of field auditors offer assurances of compliance to these complex topics impacting hundreds of thousands of farmers in remote villages throughout West Africa? It’s not possible. For many working in the field, it is no surprise these false assurances to consumers are being brought to light.

How can a system underpinned by few teams of field auditors offer assurances of compliance to these complex topics impacting hundreds of thousands of farmers in remote villages throughout West Africa?

The issues of deforestation and child labour are much less binary than a certification stamp on a chocolate bar can lead us to believe. According to research by Forest 500, at the current rate of deforestation, Côte d'Ivoire, the world’s largest producing country, risks losing all its forest cover by 2034.

Poor harvests

Poor harvests and degraded soils, coupled with low prices, leads to poverty, forcing some farmers to clear forests illegally to plant more cocoa. This is estimated to account for 40% of Côte d'Ivoire’s cocoa production.

It's not just forests at risk either. Ivorian forests like the Cavally Forest Reserve are home to endangered species such as pygmy hippos, elephants, and chimpanzees.

Farmer livelihoods are at risk too. Cocoa is grown exclusively by smallholders; in Côte d'Ivoire alone, the crop is worth US $5bn in exports. If we continue to lose the forests, along with the biodiversity in them, farmers will lose the key climate regulators making cocoa production possible in the first place.

Much less importantly - although a reality - this can lead to a chocolate shortage. Talk about a bitter reality.

So what needs to be done?

1. Protect forests by working with the people that directly have an impact on the forests

It may sound obvious, but this is not always the case in practice. Our experience in supply chains across Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Malaysia, Peru, and Ecuador, has shown long-lasting forest protection can only happen when governments, businesses, NGOs and communities work together at a landscape level, to find land-use solutions that are best suited for the local reality. Naturally, the solutions can only come from working with the people in the landscape.

Satellite technology

2.  Leverage technology to speed up the transition towards zero deforestation

Satellite technology is playing a key role in stopping deforestation​. Starling​, a satellite monitoring tool, has been helping SODEFOR, the Ivorian forest management agency, to monitor deforestation patterns beneath the forest canopy.

SODEFOR’s field teams have been using Starling data to see when people have cleared, but not yet settled in the forest. This has had an impact already on the Cavally Forest, with an 83% reduction of deforestation when comparing Q2 2018 (607 Ha of forest loss) to Q2 2019 (102 Ha of forest loss).

Also, Q3 2019 deforestation (52 Ha) is at a two-year low compared to Q1 2018 (1,474 Ha). What’s more, the previously destroyed forest is now regenerating itself, with shrubs and other plant life growing there.

3. Let’s create value for farmers

Without farmers, there is no cocoa. Yet farmers are the segment in the supply chain receiving the smallest portion of the sales price for a chocolate bar. The vast majority of the margins are left with a relatively small number of retailers, manufacturers, and traders. Meanwhile cocoa farmers are left living with an average income of $0.82 per day per family member​.

Without focusing on how to structurally improve this reality for farmers, there is little chance of improving farm management practices to protect the environment nor for addressing social issues in the supply chain. Expecting farmers to comply with hundreds of criteria in a certification standard has not worked. We need a new way forward.

Any approach to engage with farmers should ask, what’s in the best interest of the farmer?​ Focusing on their true interest, as opposed to a predefined set of rules, is the only chance we have to ensure forests are left standing and improvements are made when it comes to ensuring child protection.

It is 2020, which marks the end date of many corporate commitments to have reached the goal of No Deforestation in their supply chains. Yet, large areas of the forests of West Africa continue to be lost each day. This should only serve as further motivation for the chocolate and cocoa industry to transition their efforts from one of compliance to one of value creation. It’s the only chance we have.

Renzo Verne is cocoa lead at Earthworm Foundation​, a global non-profit working with business and farmers to protect nature.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety

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