Ghana's climate friendly cocoa
The Asempaneye Junior School students stand up and sing with all their heart, "We need to plant more trees everyday and protect them." Living in western Ghana's Bia district, they are all children of smallholder cocoa farmers and half of them are planning to take over their parents' farms when they grow up. Such plans could, however, be under threat. Cocoa trees are vulnerable to increases in temperature and changes in rainfall, and a recent report from the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) predicts a massive drop in cocoa production in West Africa by 2030 due to climate change.
The Asempaneye pupils know the dangers. They attend climate change classes, plant trees on their school grounds and have established a village nursery with seedlings provided by the international environmental organisation Rainforest Alliance (RA). The activities are part of a pilot project underway in Ghana to produce the world's first climate-friendly cocoa. The scheme aims to help farmers protect their cocoa trees, combat deforestation and mitigate and adapt to climate change. "Education starts with children, who then advise their parents. They have more influence than outsiders," explains Victor Mombu, RA environmental services specialist.
The US$1 million three-year pilot - a collaboration between RA and agricultural company Olam International Ltd - is innovative because of its multi-pronged approach. It combines best agricultural practices with climate change mitigation, focuses on the landscape as a whole rather than just the farms, and offers financial incentives to the farmers. Involving 36 communities in Juabeso and Bia districts, the project could have a big impact on Ghana's emerging national REDD+ strategy. If successful, it could be reproduced in other parts of the country and beyond.
Holding back climate change
Representatives from the 36 communities are shown how they can create a microclimate, which can hold back the effects of climate change by 5-10 years, by planting shade trees on their farms and thousands of native trees on fallow lands. The trees help protect the soil, shield the cocoa from the sun, increase biodiversity and sequester carbon. "I had a lot of trees on my farm, but I cut and burned them. I thought they brought diseases, were a nuisance and took the place of cocoa," says Doris Sor, 32, a mother of four, who owns a four-acre farm in Eteso. "I didn't know about the importance of shade trees until I joined the group."
Sor, who joined the RA-led bi-monthly training group last year, also learned good agricultural practices, such as composting, pruning, weeding and reduced usage of chemical pesticides. Her land used to yield about 20 bags of cocoa beans; now it produces 30. Many farmers claim to have almost doubled their harvests over the three years they have attended the training, and reduced their costs by 20-50 per cent by using fewer agrochemicals. The training, which follows the Sustainable Agricultural Network (SAN) standards, will also lead to certification and enable farmers to sell RA Certified™ cocoa at a premium in the global marketplace.
Year round income
Another innovative aspect of the project is diversification. "Farmers are cutting forests to plant more cocoa trees and make more money. You cannot just tell them: 'Don't cut forests'. They need to gain something. So we tried to show them how to be more productive on their existing lands and look for alternative ways of making money," says Atsu Titiati, RA project director.
Because cocoa is seasonal, farmers have no source of revenue for many months. RA staff have therefore trained them to develop small forest enterprises, such as beekeeping and grasscutter (cane rat) rearing. As a prized delicacy, the rodents - normally caught in the wild - can fetch US$40 a piece. Last year, selected farmers received a few grasscutters, a cage and instructions on how to rear them and use their droppings to fertilise cocoa. In due course they are expected to train others and share some of their animals with them.
To make the project sustainable, RA has created landscape management boards, comprising two community members, village leaders and RA representatives. They meet regularly to discuss matters relevant to the scheme. Each board has set up a bank account and the members have learned basic financial skills.
At a board meeting in Asempaneye, members say they are generally happy with their training and new skills, but wonder how they'll manage when RA and Olam leave in a few months. Among their immediate concerns are the difficulty in finding SAN-approved chemicals, which are not sold at the markets and not provided in enough quantities by the government, as well as and having to travel a long way to attend the meetings.
"This is only a start. We've created a foundation for sustainability," says Mombu. He is confident the agricultural part of the programme will continue because of the certification component, which is audited every year. But three years is not enough for the forestry part, he agrees: building up the carbon stock will take much longer.
Written by: Veronique Mistiaen
Date published: November 2013
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