Can cocoa save Colombia’s forests?

By Maria Eliza Villarino

Alliance research in Colombia indicates that cacao farming has a role to play in forest restoration and sustainable value chain development.

Cocoa has long been linked to deforestation in some countries. It’s no secret that farming cacao, the crop from which cocoa comes from, has led to the clearing of swaths of rainforest areas in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

But what about in Colombia?

Similarly to the two West African countries, Colombia has a voluntary zero-deforestation cocoa supply chain agreement in place. When the government and the chocolate industry stakeholders signed the joint framework for action for the Cocoa, Forests and Peace Initiative in Colombia in 2018, there was not yet any evidence showing how cacao production affects forest cover change in the Latin American country.

Now we have a clearer idea.

Last year, a study led by Augusto Castro-Nuñez explored the links between cacao cultivation and deforestation in Colombia (we reported on the preliminary results here). This study received a specific mention in the action plan for the Cocoa, Forests and Peace Initiative.

The Alliance of Bioversity and CIAT is a signatory to the voluntary zero-deforestation cocoa supply chain agreement in Colombia. Members of the team implementing the SLUS Project, which Germany’s International Climate Initiative (IKI) funds, compose the secretariat for the agreement. Castro-Nuñez leads this project team and the research theme on low-emissions food systems within the Alliance.

Cacao fruit and husks. Credit: CIAT/N.Palmer

Evidence for how cacao helps forests

As noted in last year’s blog, cacao farming does not significantly drive deforestation and has the potential to contribute to restoring forests in Colombia. More details of the study appeared in a recent edition of Applied Geography.

The paper indicates that how cacao became associated with deforestation in the country had less to do with any evident link between cacao production and deforestation but more to do with global trends, pointing to the growing number of public-private initiatives on halting deforestation along the supply chains of “forest-risk” agricultural commodities.

“What our study highlights is the lack of conceptual frameworks and concrete examples for designing sustainable development interventions discourses on deforestation-free agricultural production,” Castro-Nuñez said.

For the study, researchers interviewed Colombian chocolate industry stakeholders. Stakeholders noted cocoa’s potential as an agent of forest conservation, providing sustainable livelihoods to families involved in economic activities linked to deforestation and addressing land degradation through agroforestry systems.

For example, research has shown that illicit coca leaf farming has ties to deforestation and the half-century civil conflict that ended in 2016. This provides the rationale to stakeholders’ belief that cocoa has a role in building peace as an alternative economic activity.

“Nevertheless, there is a broad agreement that this can only be achieved if [cacao farming] becomes a ‘profitable business,’” the authors write.

Making cacao farming profitable has been a challenge. A supply chain analysis of the Colombian cacao sector attributes this to low productivity and inefficiencies in gaining access to the needed financial and technical assistance by supply chain actors.

Cacao is harvested in Colombia’s Cauca department. Credit: CIAT/N.Palmer

Developing the cacao value chain

In the paper, Castro-Nuñez and colleagues recommend several considerations for the development of value chain interventions:

  1. Employ contextualized approaches to zero-deforestation agricultural production,
  2. Mainstream deforestation concerns in cocoa value chain strategies,
  3. Invest in operationalizing zero-deforestation commitments,
  4. Improve the capacity to understand the links between the production of agricultural commodities and deforestation.

“Promoting zero deforestation in agricultural value chains is undoubtedly a good move. It is not only a way to meet ambitious commitments to preserve tropical forests and cut carbon emissions, but it is also a way to incentivize value chain stakeholders to source, produce, process and transport agricultural outputs according to environmental, social and quality standards, thus contributing toward sustainable development,” the authors conclude.

“Reducing global deforestation, however, will require more than value chain development interventions. It will require changes in farm practices and the farm input supply chain, changes in the intermediating system (change in retail, wholesale, logistics and processing), and changes on the demand side (diet changes).”


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