By Dipika Chawla
Every year, five million cocoa farmers in the tropics of Central and South America, Africa and Asia produce more than two million metric tons of cocoa (Theobroma cacao). Ninety percent of these farmers are smallholders, owning farms that are around seven acres (three hectares) in size and earning an average of USD$1 per day.
Like coffee, cocoa can grow in the shade of the forest canopy and provide habitat for plant and animal species, protect natural pollinators, and help to create biological corridors. However, many farmers are choosing to grow cocoa in full-sun using hybrid species. These hybrids grow more rapidly but require the use of pesticides, causing environmental problems such as deforestation, degraded soils, and water pollution. Cocoa farmers also face challenges including low yields, weak farmer cooperatives, limited access to training, low income, child labor, and limited health care.
Although cocoa was first cultivated thousands of years ago by Olmec tribes in Mexico, today the majority of the world’s cocoa is grown in West Africa. Nevertheless, specialty chocolate companies are increasingly demanding Latin American cocoa because of its high quality. Gerardo Medina, the national coordinator for the Rainforest Alliance’s sustainable agriculture team in Peru, believes the current cocoa boom in Latin America also has a lot to do with an increasing sector-wide shift to sustainability. “The industry is working on improving its image by participating in sustainable initiatives and promoting best practices,” he explains. “And chocolate companies have come to realize that they cannot be sustainable if their supplier farms are not sustainable.”
The Rainforest Alliance is in the second year of its “Greening the Cocoa Industry” project — a joint initiative with the United Nations Environment Programme financed by the Global Environment Facility — which is training 250,000 cocoa farmers in Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Ghana, Indonesia, Madagascar, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea and Peru on best management practices, improved efficiency, and providing access to business and financial services. The project expects to transform 1.85 million acres (750,000 hectares) of cocoa lands, or 10 percent of the world’s cocoa production.
According to Medina, the project is focusing its efforts in Peru near national parks and protected areas-specifically the Megantoni National Sanctuary, which is threatened by unsustainable agricultural expansion. “Many farms in Peru have about 40 percent of their total area within primary forest,” explains Medina. “Since they are in buffer zones of protected areas, this agricultural expansion threatens to destroy high value ecosystems.”
In Peru, the project is helping 4,000 farmers implement best management practices under the standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN), which increase productivity and quality while lowering costs, increasing incomes, and reducing pressure on forested areas. “We went from not having any certified cocoa from Peru in 2008 to having 4,000 tons of Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa in 2012,” says Medina. “And we expect that Peruvian farmers will be producing at least 6,000 tons of certified cocoa by 2016.”
Some of the project’s on-farm activities include training on grafting, pruning, fertilization, pest and disease prevention, and developing social and environment management plans. On new plantations, they will develop cocoa clones that combine high organoleptic species with species that are especially strong and productive. This would mean, for example, combining a local cocoa variety called “chuncho” –highly desired for its aromatic properties — with other, more productive species.
“Latin American countries are not major cocoa producers, so we have to take advantage of the diversity and quality of our cocoa beans, their fine aromas, and the genetic resources of local varieties,” explains Medina. “Some producers have chosen to substitute the native, aromatic cacao with types that are more productive but don’t have the same qualities. We cannot follow this path — we must combine quality and productivity without losing the richness of our product.”
Through the project, we are training group administrators and technicians who work with both cocoa cooperatives and companies with sustainable agriculture programs. It will also develop sustainable pilot farms so that farmers and agronomists can learn about best management practices through internships. There will be tools available for all interested producers, including the new online SAN training platform and other educational materials that will be developed during the project.
Peruvian farmers are happy with the project, which Medina attributes to higher yields. In the Cusco area, Rainforest Alliance CertifiedTM cocoa farms are reporting outputs that are double those of the average non-certified farm. Producers are drawn to the fact that the project goes beyond best environmental and social practices and emphasizes economic issues. The Rainforest Alliance’s successes in the sustainable coffee sector have also helped to ensure farmers’ support and participation.
According to Medina, the key to “greening” the cocoa industry will be ensuring that companies recognize farmer’s efforts by paying higher prices for sustainably grown cocoa and providing an incentive for farmers to continue to sustainably managing their farms.