With the global demand for chocolate on the rise, cocoa farming continues to play a crucial role in the economy of Ghana, the world’s second largest cocoa producer. But while the crop remains the main source of income for hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers in this West African nation, its cultivation has also resulted in significant deforestation and land degradation, which are major drivers of climate change.
But this doesn’t have to be the case, as the Rainforest Alliance has helped to demonstrate in Western Ghana’s Juabeso-Bia District. Thanks to the adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices, farmers there are conserving forests, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing carbon storage on their land, and enhancing their farms’ productivity, all of which are steps that not only improve their livelihoods, but also make their farms more resilient in the face of a changing climate.
Situated in Ghana’s high forest zone between Bia National Park (a globally significant biodiversity area) and the Krokosua Hills Forest Reserve, Juabeso-Bia District is a mosaic of croplands, cocoa agroforests, and remnants of natural forests. The region also provides habitat and serves as a corridor for many animals, including forest elephants, monkeys, and chimpanzees.
Historically, deforestation in Ghana’s Western Region has been driven by cocoa production. More than half of the country’s cocoa is grown in this area, and the landscape composition has been severely affected by the conversion of species-rich tropical forest to cocoa-production systems, which are less structurally and floristically diverse. From 1988 to 2010, cocoa cultivation in Ghana expanded by nearly 2.5 million acres (one million ha), much of that in the Western Region, including the Juabeso-Bia District. At the same time, the amount of cocoa produced per acre decreased because of poor management practices and aging cocoa trees.
All of these factors, combined with the crop’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change—including an increased occurrence of pests and diseases, alterations in seasonal weather patterns, and the increased likelihood of forest fires—pose great challenges to Juabeso-Bia’s cocoa farmers.
Furthermore, the government of Ghana owns all remnant forest trees, many of which exist as shade trees on cocoa farms, and it can issue felling licenses to chainsaw operators to harvest those trees. These logging activities can cause damage to cocoa crops, for which farmers are rarely compensated, so there’s been little incentive for them to protect the trees. Farmers can, however, own the trees that they plant on their land if they register them with the government.
Instead of viewing forests as obstacles to development, the Rainforest Alliance sees them as an essential part of a diversified local economy, one that’s based on sustainable farm and forest management across the entire landscape. However, this vision can only become reality if local communities are provided with the necessary training and skills, and afforded a greater role in governing their own natural resources.
In Juabeso-Bia, we collaborated with cocoa-farming communities to increase farm productivity and boost the income of smallholder farmers, while also conserving biodiversity, reducing emissions, and helping farmers prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change.
We also assisted farmers with the extensive documentation that’s required to obtain legal ownership of the trees on their land. Oduro Kwadwo planted 800 trees on his cocoa farm, mostly mahogany and cedar, and hopes to benefit from the sale of their timber in the future. “That money will be a welcome addition to the income from cocoa,” he says. “The planting of trees provides an extra security if there were to be trouble with my cocoa farm.”
Together with other stakeholders, we provided these communities with technical assistance and support in implementing practices to help them meet the rigorous Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) standard for Rainforest Alliance certification. This approach has increased economic opportunities for marginalized farmers and also led to significant GHG emissions reductions. Here are a few highlights:
Training in Climate-Smart Farming and Sustainable Forest Management
Approximately 2,000 farmers from 34 communities were trained—some by area farmers who underwent our training themselves and subsequently passed on this knowledge to their neighbors—and nearly 15,000 acres (6,000 ha) of farms earned Rainforest Alliance certification. Farmers were also provided with native tree seedlings to restore degraded forest areas and increase carbon stocks.
Improved Governance and Planning
We helped cocoa farmers organize themselves into 12 cooperatives, and with the establishment of a local landscape-management board (whose members are drawn from the community), it’s now easier to coordinate farmer training activities, resolve disputes regarding tree-ownership rights, and plan for future initiatives such as the development of a carbon project. “Before a group of farmers can be certified, they need an internal management system,” says Christian Mensah, the Rainforest Alliance’s Senior Manager for West Africa. “This can only happen when farmers cluster together, and when they are given enough capacity to empower themselves, to make their own decisions, and to transform the lands that they are working on.”
Increased Carbon Stocks Through Restoration
We worked with farmers to improve their protection of natural forests, known locally as “sacred groves,” and restore forests on nearly 300 ha of abandoned fallow lands. To enable this result, we facilitated the establishment of two nurseries, where 300,000 tree seedlings were raised. These efforts are expected to sequester an estimated 140,000 metric tons of CO2e over 20 years.
Through the development and dissemination of educational materials, we’ve shared knowledge about climate change, forests, and related environmental issues with teachers, students, and community members. Teachers have implemented our climate curriculum in their classrooms and formed “Save the Environment” clubs with their students.
Carbon Project Development
We conducted a range of land-use and carbon studies, which demonstrate the potential benefits of developing a carbon project in the community. The knowledge gathered will help to improve forest and farm management, provide a framework for the design of such a project, and establish a baseline against which progress can be measured. These are all necessary steps if the community hopes to earn carbon credits in the future.
Expanded Economic Opportunities
To improve farmers’ livelihoods, we helped to develop enterprises around beekeeping, and the raising of small livestock (i.e., the grasscutter, or Thryonomys swinderianus) for meat. Both activities are expected to provide farmers with additional sources of income—particularly during those lean times between seasonal cocoa harvests. These efforts have had the added benefit of generating income for local carpenters who were tasked with constructing beehives and other equipment required to establish these ventures.
As a result of our training and capacity-building activities, about 80 percent of the residents in these communities have a better understanding of how deforestation contributes to climate change. And thanks to their commitment to making tangible changes on their land, Juabeso-Bia’s cocoa farmers now view their farms as an integrated part of the landscape. Their actions are having positive impacts on the surrounding environment, and those impacts are feeding back into improvements on their farms and to their livelihoods.
Take the beekeeping enterprises, for example. Previously, area farmers relied on fire to harvest wild honey, smoking bees out of their hives, an approach that increased the risk of bush fires—which threaten area farms—and also eliminated many bees, which are crucial for pollinating the region’s cocoa trees. The Rainforest Alliance provided 40 area farmers with hives and other equipment, as well as training in alternative harvesting methods that don’t rely on fire.
During the first year of the initiative, the farmers harvested approximately 2,000 lbs (950 kg) of honey, the sale of which earned them more than 10 times what they might’ve made in one year from an average cocoa harvest. Participating farmer Seth Antwi harvested 150 lbs (68 kg) of honey, a small portion of which went to friends, and he also set aside some for his children to eat at breakfast, but the sale of the rest will benefit his family in another way as well. “I have now expanded my apiary by increasing the number of hives,” he says, “and hopefully my income will be enhanced in the next harvesting seasons, which will help me further my children’s education in higher institutions.”
As this example demonstrates, our work in these agricultural communities is about so much more than simply awarding farmers the Rainforest Alliance Certified™ seal for their production of one crop. “Certification goes beyond productivity, and even quality of life,” says Mensah. “It empowers farmers to make decisions for themselves and for their future.”