Hope in the Shade of Cocoa Trees

Ouedraogo Boureima was just four years old when, in 1985, his family left their village in Burkina Faso and walked across the border and into Côte d’Ivoire. They brought only the clothes on their backs, two sheep, four cooking pots, food for travel and a picture of their ancestors. The family traveled south and then west, finally settling in the rural community of Blolequin, where Ouedraogo’s father declared that he would support them as a cocoa farmer.

Ouedraogo’s family planted and then cultivated cocoa trees, and they built a new life for themselves. Ouedraogo came of age and eventually joined his father in the cocoa fields. Then in 2011, the Second Ivoirian Civil War broke out, leaving Blolequin in shambles with dozens killed, and forcing the family to retreat to Burkina Faso. Last year, as a measure of peace began to settle back over the land, Ouedraogo returned to Côte d’Ivoire.

ripe cocoa pods
Photo credit: David Dudenhoefer

“My heart, my loyalty and my livelihood lies among the shade of my cocoa trees and the blood red earth of Western Côte d’Ivoire.”

Ouedraogo Boureima

“My heart, my loyalty and my livelihood lies among the shade of my cocoa trees and the blood red earth of Western Côte d’Ivoire,” he explains. Now 31, Ouedraogo is carrying his father’s dream forward. It is a dream shared by more than 4.5 million people in Côte d’Ivoire, who depend on cocoa for their livelihoods. But as the Boureima family knows well, cocoa is an industry fraught with challenges, including price volatility, farmer exploitation, low wages and child labor, in a country plagued by political instability.

Despite the war’s end, political unrest continues to threaten Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa crop—already under pressure from pests, fungi, unsustainable farming techniques, climate change and drought—while global cocoa demand climbs steadily at a rate of three percent a year. At the same time, increasingly low yields raise concerns about future cocoa shortages and hurt the incomes and aspirations of millions of Ivoirians.

In 2008, the Rainforest Alliance began to introduce socially, environmentally and economically sustainable practices to farmers in Côte d’Ivoire—helping farmers increase their yields and their profits, and improve their lives. Ouedraogo is one of tens of thousands of farmers in Côte d’Ivoire who have benefited from Rainforest Alliance certification.

In an effort to improve his family’s life, in 2011 he joined a cooperative of cocoa farmers working toward Rainforest Alliance certification. Many farmers in his community were initially skeptical of certification. The country’s history of violence and political unrest colored their perception; over the years, they had been approached by a number of NGOs offering aid, but in the end, they all failed to deliver on their promises. Desperate to support his family, Ouedraogo was willing to accept the possibility that certification would not pan out.

COABOB co-op

Ouedraogo Boureima (third row center, yellow shirt) with Rainforest Alliance staff and other members of the COABOB co-op.

Just one year later, Ouedraogo’s understanding of certification has evolved substantially. As with many farmers, it was initially talk of a price premium that attracted him. In actuality, certification does not guarantee a price premium, but higher yields resulting from the techniques promoted by the Rainforest Alliance have improved farmers' lives. A 2012 study found that net income on Rainforest Alliance Certified farms in Côte d’Ivoire was 291 percent higher than on noncertified farms.

As Ouedraogo and other farmers have learned, however, higher incomes are just one aspect of the complex journey to sustainability. Now in its second year, Ouedraogo’s Rainforest Alliance Certified cooperative COABOB is composed of 798 farmers who have a much deeper understanding of the challenges and benefits of certification. It was a struggle, for example, for many farmers to accept certification requirements that prohibit the use of toxic agrochemicals and encourage the use of alternative methods to control pests and add nutrients to the soil. With decreasing yields, many farmers felt pressure to increase their use of pesticide and chemical fertilizers on cocoa trees. “It takes the Rainforest Alliance training and an outside perspective to understand that these chemicals are not long term solutions,” explains Ouedraogo.

Certification has led to other on-farm improvements, as well. Through his work with the Rainforest Alliance, Ouedraogo learned to prune his trees (cutting away old, dead and diseased branches) and put a mixture of wood shavings and composted cocoa pods around the base of each cocoa tree (helping to keep the soil around the trees’ roots moist). He has also planted a variety of trees on his farm to protect his cocoa from the sun and enrich his soil.

This year, Ouedraogo noticed that his trees had sprouted new, healthy growth. He is hopeful that his harvest will be larger as a result. If other certified farms in the country are any indication, he will get his wish. Certified cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire have produced 72 percent more than their uncertified counterparts.

“I am starting to believe that I can think long term, something that I have never been able to do before,” Ouedraogo says. “I want to practice farming techniques that will allow my son to have a future on this same land.” He feels hopeful knowing that there are consumers demanding certified products. “There are people who believe in what I am doing,” he says, smiling. “This makes the world feel smaller and gives me pride in my work.”

Thanks to commitments from several of the world’s leading brands, Rainforest Alliance certification programs have experienced remarkable growth across Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire over the past decade. Today, companies recognize that the journey to sustainability must include environmental, social, and economic progress. The Rainforest Alliance plays an important role in advancing sustainable agriculture among West Africa’s cocoa farmers—a transformation that is essential to securing the world’s supply of cocoa.

Ramon nut, a sustainable superfood - photo by Sergio Izquierdo

How will we feed the 9.8 billion people who will share Earth in 2050?