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Toward a Sustainable Cocoa Sector

Effects of SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certification on Farmer Livelihoods and the Environment

Executive Summary

The SAN/Rainforest Alliance cocoa program has grown rapidly over the past five years, with just under 1 million hectares of cocoa farmland in 15 countries achieving SAN/Rainforest Alliance certification by the end of 2016. SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified™ cocoa now composes 13.4 percent of the world’s cocoa supply, with increasing numbers of commitments by large cocoa buyers to source sustainable cocoa. 

The Rainforest Alliance and its partner the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) started working to mainstream sustainable practices in the cocoa industry through the SAN/Rainforest Alliance certification program in the late 1990s. Our program establishes a norm for sustainable cocoa farming (the SAN Standard), evaluates attainment of this norm by participating farmers, and awards Rainforest Alliance Certified status to farms meeting this standard. The program also helps build consumer demand and market incentives for sustainable cocoa products while simultaneously supporting cocoa producers to farm more sustainably, productively, and profitably. 

Now that the program has been in place for nearly two decades, it is critical to take stock of its results, reflect on successes and limitations, and consider how the program could be adjusted in the future to build on successes while addressing remaining challenges. This report answers the question: what have been the effects of the SAN/Rainforest Alliance cocoa program on cocoa-producing farms, households, and landscapes?

SAN/Rainforest Alliance cocoa farms around the globe are consistently implementing practices that address major environmental and socioeconomic challenges.

To make this assessment, we analyzed performance for a large sample of certified cocoa farms (186 out of 266 total certificates available at the close of 2015), representing just over 170,000 individual farms across five countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Ecuador, Peru, and Indonesia. We also summarize results from recent independent scientific studies evaluating the effects of the SAN/Rainforest Alliance certification program. 

The analysis focuses on four challenges of modern cocoa farming:

1. Natural Ecosystem Loss

The first challenge is the loss of natural ecosystems on and near cocoa farms, and the effects of this habitat loss on forest-dwelling animals and plants. Natural ecosystems are compromised when cocoa farmers expand their cocoa plots into neighboring forests or eliminate native tree species from their farms. The SAN Standard addresses this problem by requiring farmers to protect natural ecosystems and maintain adequate shade cover, tree species diversity, and connectivity in crop areas. Certified cocoa farms in all regions complied fully with mandatory requirements to protect on-farm and off-farm natural ecosystems. Farms in Ecuador and Peru complied fully with recommended shade cover parameters, but farms in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Indonesia had substantially lower compliance rates in this area. We expect that recent regulatory changes in West Africa to rectify ambiguous tree ownership laws, combined with ongoing farmer training on the benefits of shade cover in cocoa farms, will increase farmer interest and incentives to plant and tend canopy trees. Even with lower compliance rates, however, two independent studies in West Africa found that SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farms retained and/or replanted shade trees at a significantly higher rate than non-certified farms. 

2. Low Farm Productivity

A second challenge is low farm productivity, often caused by pests and disease, aging cocoa trees, and insufficient pruning. For low-income farmers, increasing farm productivity is a priority. The SAN Standard outlines productivity-boosting practices, such as integrated pest management and fertilization based on soil and crop need. Managers of group certificates are tasked with providing training to all group members on these and other aspects of SAN Standard implementation. Data from the 188 certificates show that group training programs and systems are in place in all regions, with programs being tailored to workers’ roles and suited to the local cultural context. Implementation of these training programs has increased over time. Despite these programs, adoption of good agronomic practices such as fertilization and pest control remained variable across the certified portfolio, with few distinct trends. This may be due, in part, to the constant influx of new farmers to the program, resulting in static program-wide averages even as individual farmers improved their practices. This interpretation is supported by several independent studies from West Africa, which found that cocoa yields, profitability, and optimism about the future were higher on SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified farms than non-certified farms. 

3. Entrenched Poverty

Cocoa farmers and farming communities face a third critical challenge of entrenched poverty and, in some regions, child labor. Child labor, in particular, must urgently be addressed, due to its long term negative impacts on children and its threat to the viability of the cocoa sector as a whole. The SAN Standard places strict limits on the amount of time that youth aged 15-18 can work and the tasks they can perform, and completely prohibits minors under 15 from farm work except on family farms in very restricted circumstances. Across the board, certified operations were found to comply fully with all requirements related to the employment of minors and youth. With the exception of one certificate in Ecuador, all certified farms complied with the SAN criterion addressing access to education for school-aged children, and nine out of ten certified farms provided access to medical services for farmers, workers, and their families.

4. Exposure to Hazardous Agrochemicals

Finally, exposure to hazardous agrochemicals can be a problem on cocoa farms, where a lack of protective equipment, insufficient knowledge of safe application and storage methods, and the use of banned pesticides can negatively affect the health of workers, their families, communities, and nearby natural areas. The SAN Standard guides farmers to minimize the need for agrochemicals by promoting integrated pest management and non-chemical control measures; to the extent that agrochemicals are applied, the standard includes numerous protective measures to minimize any associated risk. Cocoa farms are required to comply with numerous criteria related to the use of personal protective equipment and the avoidance of 99 prohibited substances. Adoption of non-mandatory agrochemical safety best practices varied by country, but generally improved over time especially with regard to the use of personal protective equipment, emergency procedures, safe handling of agrochemicals, and agrochemical storage locations. Improvements were especially pronounced in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. Independent research likewise found that SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farmers in West Africa used protective equipment and safe agrochemical storage practices at significantly higher rates than non-certified farmers.

Taken together, the evidence in this report reveals that SAN/Rainforest Alliance cocoa farms around the globe are consistently implementing practices that address major environmental and socioeconomic challenges associated with cocoa farming. Where it exists, independent research supports these findings, with certified farms showing higher rates of sustainable practice implementation than non-certified farms, as well as higher yields and profitability. In addition, results show that a core concept of SAN/Rainforest Alliance—the promotion of continuous improvement toward sustainability—is being achieved in practice, with performance in many areas, such as agrochemical safety practices in West Africa, showing robust improvement over time. 

The report also identifies a handful of sustainability topics in specific regions where performance was not as strong or consistent as desired. These findings point to the need for more concerted efforts to improve training and further support farmers to overcome barriers to progress. Changes introduced in the new 2017 SAN Standard (published in September 2016 and effective for audits as of July 1, 2017) will help better address many of these topics. For example, formerly non-mandatory criteria related to integrated pest management will become mandatory in the 2017 SAN Standard. In addition, the 2017 standard introduces the concepts of living wage and essential needs to help drive improvements in farmer livelihoods more systematically. The standard also codifies the concept of continuous improvement more formally to help drive quantitative improvements in performance over time, beginning with the highest priority sustainability topics. These changes, combined with ongoing efforts to increase market demand and market incentives for SAN/Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa, are designed to drive increased uptake and impact of the program, benefiting cocoa farmers, communities, and landscapes in more than a dozen countries.

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