Conservation through cocoa

Posted by Rosie Miles, Conservation Officer, RSPB on 14 December 2018

The RSPB has been working in the Gola region of Sierra Leone for 30 years, collaborating with local partners towards a sustainable management model for the Gola Rainforest. The partnership, which includes the RSPB, the Government of Sierra Leone, the Conservation Society of Sierra Leone and the Gola Communities, has been formalised since 2015. Together they formed the equal partnership, not-for-profit company Gola Rainforest Conservation LG. But long before this, since 2002, there has been vision in place to ensure that the management model for Gola combines conservation goals, sustainable financing and community development, in recognition of the fact that all three aspects are crucial to the protection of the rainforest.

One of the ways that we have been working towards this vision is through cocoa. The Guardian recently published an article, ‘Africa cocoa industry failing on deforestation pledge that shines a spotlight on the big chocolate companies operating in Ghana and the Ivory Coast. And it’s very alarming to see the level of deforestation and disheartening to hear that big businesses aren’t delivering on their promises. However, important conservation work is being done by the cocoa industry. Gola Rainforest Conversation is setting a prime example and one that we hope the sector will follow.

As mentioned in the Guardian’s article, commodities like cocoa can be drivers of deforestation. In fact, in West Africa cocoa farming attributed to the loss of over 2.3 million hectares of primary rainforest in a 20-year period. Driven by poverty and an ever-increasing demand for cocoa, farmers have been clearing forest to grow cocoa as a plantation crop.

Deforestation is a very real threat in Sierra Leone. It is one of the world’s least developed countries and, in remote areas like Gola, communities are highly dependent on natural resources. But currently the cocoa industry is relatively under-developed. The Gola partnership saw there may be an opportunity to develop a cocoa industry that worked for the forest rather than against it. Working with Twin and Jula (an agricultural consultancy in Sierra Leone) this is what we have set out to do.

Cocoa is very sensitive and needs protection from the harsh tropical sun and other elements, so it actually grows best when surrounded by bigger, stronger forest trees. When grown in this way, often referred to as shade-grown or agroforestry, the cocoa trees get all the moisture and nutrients they require from the forest ecosystem, and they are more resistant to pests and disease.

But even more than this, shade-grown cocoa forms part of the forest ecosystem itself. Since 2013, the RSPB has been investigating the biodiversity value of different types of habitat found around Gola. The results indicate that forest-dependent bird communities on cocoa farms are similar to those found within the National Park and other forest habitats. By contrast, bird communities in other farmland habitats are distinctly less diverse. This suggests that shade-grown cocoa represents a good proxy for forest habitat and could play an important role in connecting areas of primary forest.

This is particularly important because the decades of deforestation in West Africa have left only pockets of primary rainforest standing in a mosaic of community and agricultural lands. Only small areas of forest are legally protected from destruction, the habitat outside of these areas needs to be conserved in alternative ways.

For the pockets of National Parks found across the Greater Gola Landscape to function properly as an ecosystem they need to be connected and allow movement of wildlife between them. Our research suggests that traditional shade-grown cocoa farming could play a significant role in this, while enabling communities to earn a sustainable income off the land. Furthermore, cocoa farming provides economic value to having the community forest standing and this helps minimise the risk of it being cleared for other economic gains which have less biodiversity value, like timber forestry and mining.

Western Chimpanzee GRNP

Western Chimpanzee in the Gola Rainforest. Photo courtesy of the RSPB.

But the reality is plantation-grown cocoa will always produce higher per-hectare yields than shade-grown cocoa. So, unless consumers are willing to pay a premium for cocoa that is grown in a forest-friendly way, like they do for other specialist products like organic produce, farmers that clear forest and plant more cocoa trees will ultimately make more money. Currently there is little incentive for farming in a forest-friendly way.

Our ambition is for the Gola Rainforest cocoa farmers to be rewarded for the role they play as rainforest guardians by receiving higher prices for their specialist, sustainable cocoa.