Looking for the sweet spot : balancing social and ecological wellbeing in sustainable chocolate

Mark Hirons (left) in Ghana with the project’s Field Manager, Michael Adu-Sasu (right).

On World Chocolate Day, University of Oxford researcher Dr Mark Hirons writes about his work with small-holder farmers in Ghana to support sustainable chocolate production and poverty alleviation through the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) led research project ‘ECOLIMITS’.
As C.M. Schulz said,

“All you need is love. But a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt.”

To ensure future generations can continue to augment love with chocolate, and minimise risks that chocolate production might actually hurt some people in some places, we have been working on a project in Ghana looking at socio-ecological dynamics of the cocoa system.
Around 60% of the world’s cocoa is produced by smallholder farmers in two West African countries: Ghana and Ivory Coast, and Ghana supplies 20% of the cocoa beans to the $9bn global cocoa market. Cocoa is, as the people who farm the crop like to say, the ‘back-bone’ of the Ghanaian economy. However, as well as providing employment for nearly a million farmers and raising many people out of poverty, the crop has underpinned much of the deforestation the country has seen in recent decades. As primary forest cover declines, interest has been turning to the management of shade trees on cocoa farms. Shade trees are an important component of the cocoa ecosystem in Ghana, playing a key role in maintaining biodiversity and ecological processes, including buffering against droughts, such as those associated with 2015–2016 El Nino. The number of shade trees on farms has, however, been declining due to exploitation for timber and because high levels of shade have been associated with the infamous ‘black pod’ disease that attacks cocoa.
The ECOLIMITS project aims to enhance our knowledge of the ecological benefits of shade on farms so that farmers can benefit from increased yields and resilience against future droughts. In collaboration with our local NGO partner, the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) we have established 38 plots for monitoring ecological variables in both cocoa farms and the adjacent 360 sq.km. Kakum National Park forest.
Local field assistants have been responsible for continuous collection of key data including on pollinators, tree growth, disease prevalence and microclimate as well as yield, farm management practices and the factors which shapes farmers’ decisions. We have also conducted three rounds of household surveys with more than 100 respondents, as well as conducted in-depth individual and group interviews and workshops with farmers and other key stakeholders at a local and national level. These data have delivered deep insights in to the complexities of the cocoa system from both an ecological and social perspective.

Ghanaian small holder cocoa farmers who are involved with the research

This interdisciplinary approach is critical because, enhancing the ecological knowledge of the system is only part of what is necessary to increase the returns farmers receive from their farms. For example, farmers must also have the ability to control the trees on their farms. Currently, farmers have little or no incentive to retain shade trees because timber contractors, with licences granted by the government, could come and remove the trees, damaging cocoa trees in the process. Rather, the cocoa farmers would fell trees simply to reduce the risk that a contractor would come and remove the tree, or they sell them to criminalised chainsaw operators who pay a small amount of compensation and process the wood into logs on the farm minimising damage.
The social science component of this project has been investigating the local dynamics of control over trees on farms and we are linking these with ongoing policy developments, including to strategies to draw on international climate finance to sustainably intensify cocoa production and to address critical questions concerning justice in efforts to combat illegal logging. The involvement of established national NGOs in designing, collecting and analysing the data adds immense value to the project, including feeding in the results to government agencies to help them shape appropriate policy responses to the social, ecological and climatic challenges the cocoa sector currently faces. Overall, the project hopes to contribute to the pursuit of a cocoa sector that is ecologically resilient and contributes to the advancement of human wellbeing.
Dr Mark Hirons (@MarkAHirons) is a post-doctoral researcher at the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.
ECOLIMITS project is funded by the Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) research programme, we are a research consortium combining the academic skills and practical knowledge of the University of Oxford, the University of Reading, the Institute of Zoology (IoZ), the Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC) in Ghana, the Forest Research Institute of Ghana (FORIG), Ghana Forestry Commission and the Environment and Coffee Forest Forum (ECFF) in Ethiopia.

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