Cocoa trees thrive in a thin ecological band of countries along the equator, where the climate is warm and humid. Just two countries – Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – produce two thirds of the world’s cocoa. Cocoa plays a critically important role in the local and national economies, providing jobs, improved livelihoods and social welfare, an expanded tax base, family and corporate income, and foreign exchange earnings. However, long term viability of cocoa farming is at risk in many parts of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire due to climate change, and for many years smallholder cocoa has been the leading cause of agricultural commodity driven deforestation in both countries. This deforestation has a negative impact on biodiversity, soil fertility, water quality and quantity, affects local rainfall and threatens farmer livelihoods. In response, the governments of both countries and commodity buyers have made specific commitments to reduce and eliminate deforestation from their supply chains through the creation of initiatives such as the Cocoa and Forests Initiative (CFI) and the Ghana Cocoa Forest Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) Program that will sell carbon credits to the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.
Companies like Hershey’s rely on thousands of West African farmers, each of whom farms a tiny plot, often one to two hectares (2.5 – 5 acres). In Ghana, up to 40 percent of cocoa farms suffer from low productivity due to aging trees and blight. In the past, when cocoa farmers faced diminishing crop yields, they could clear new forests and plant new trees. But today with fewer remaining primary forests this approach to expanding or even maintaining yield is environmentally and socially unacceptable. The most sustainable solution is to replant or rehabilitate old cocoa farms with disease-free new trees. Yet several challenges confront small farmers who want to replant. Many farmers have insecure land tenure that prevents or discourages them from replanting old farms. Tenure challenges also limit incentives to plant and intercrop cocoa seedlings with shade trees that can increase survival and productivity, as well as help cocoa companies meet their sustainability commitments. Farmers have low incomes and limited access to credit to borrow money to invest in their farms. In addition, they often lack information and training on best practices to rehabilitate old cocoa farms to increase yields and resiliency.
According to Ghana’s Lands Commission, less than two percent of the country’s 800,000 cocoa farmers have documented title to the land they cultivate. Instead, farmers access property through customary tenure arrangements made with a chief or a landowner. Traditionally, these oral agreements have allowed farmers to clear forests and begin farming. Customary tenure comes in several forms that can range from rights analogous to common law freehold (asidae and usufruct) or tenancy (abunu). Under abunu tenure, the farmer’s tenure is tied to keeping the land under cultivation as cocoa. If the farm is abandoned or no longer used for cocoa it reverts to the landowner. Once cocoa tree yields drop after 25 years or so – or sooner if disease strikes – abunu farmers often need to obtain permission from the original landowner to replant. At a time of historically high demand for land, chiefs and landowners are increasingly refusing farmers’ requests to replant. That leaves abunu farmers with two options: clear virgin forests and start again or get out of the business entirely. The exact number of abunu farmers across Ghana is unknown, but previous United States Agency for International Development (USAID) work in Nyame Nnae community in Asankgranwa found 46 percent of farms were under abunu tenure agreements.
Most cocoa farmers are subsistence farmers with little financial capacity to invest in their farms. Cocoa takes four to five years to mature and produce cocoa pods and most farmers cannot afford to cut and replant large portions of their farm at one time due to the time it takes for a tree to produce cocoa. If a farm is diseased, however, the only way to remove the disease in some cases is to clear and leave the land fallow before it can be replanted with cocoa.
Finally, traditionally cocoa farms retain large shade trees. This practice has preserved many economically and environmentally important trees within the landscape. However, a combination of government and Ghana Cocoa Board (COCOBOD) policies has led to the widespread removal of shade trees from farms; in 2007 it was estimated that 72 percent of cocoa farms across Ghana had “no to light” levels of shade. The government of Ghana also claims ownership of all naturally occurring trees, which creates a disincentive to maintain or restore shade tree cover across cocoa farms.