A new UNEP-WCMC study, in collaboration with the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in Ghana and the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, and the CocoaSoils programme, has scoped potential priority areas for increasing tree cover in cocoa growing areas in Ghana, and revealed some of the potential benefits for nature, communities and climate resilience.

Ghana is the world’s second-largest cocoa producer, generating more than 800,000 tons of cocoa beans per year on average. Cocoa is a major contributor to Ghana’s economy and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers across Southwest Ghana. Between 1994 and 2018, the area under cocoa production in the country has more than doubled. This has increased income for farmers but come at a cost to nature – as forests have been converted into cocoa farms, habitat for species has decreased and become increasingly fragmented in one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Forest loss also has also reduced the ability of land to capture carbon and contribute to mitigating global climate change, as well as regulate the local climate.

Cocoa can be grown in direct sunlight or under the shade provided by taller trees. Recently, farmers have been incentivised to move towards low or no shade systems to increase yields. However, evidence suggests that in the long term these practices may not be sustainable, especially for smallholder farmers. Moreover, the loss of trees on agricultural lands can reduce habitat for biodiversity and the provisioning of some ecosystem services. Of more than 2.3 million hectares of cocoa growing lands in Ghana, nearly two million hectares are estimated to be under low or no shade growing conditions.

Evidence shows that well-designed and managed agroforestry – where trees are grown among other crops – can benefit cocoa production by supporting more sustainable yields over time. Some shade trees can enhance soil fertility, as well as provide habitats for predatory species that control insect pests. Using shade trees can help diversify farmer income when they produce commercially valuable fruits and timber. Importantly, well-shaded cocoa plantations experience lower maximum temperatures and thus a more stable microclimate, can store up to 2.5 times more carbon than those that are unshaded, and support higher levels of biodiversity.

There can also be trade-offs when non-cocoa trees compete with cocoa trees for resources or when shade trees harbour pests and diseases, which can reduce cocoa yields. However, on balance, agroforestry systems that are designed to suit local contexts and provide multiple benefits (rather than just cocoa) are seen as more appropriate and sustainable than more intensive systems for the relatively poor smallholder farmers that dominate cocoa production in Ghana and more widely in West Africa.

Ghana is now promoting cocoa agroforestry through several initiatives led by a range of community-based, national and international stakeholders, including, buyers, not-for-profit organisations, international donors, and local parties. National-level policies have been implemented, such as the Cocoa and Forests National Implementation plan, the Ghana Cocoa Forest REDD+ Programme (GCFRP), and the National Climate-Smart Agriculture and Food Security Action Plan.

The new study modelled the potential scope and outcomes of transitioning existing cocoa areas towards more shaded cocoa farming. The researchers generated a map that reveals the areas where the expansion of agroforestry practices such as through the use of shade trees would be most beneficial, to help prioritise interventions to boost sustainable production under climate change, sequester carbon, safeguard biodiversity and mitigate climate impacts.

Our new report reveals there are opportunities to increase tree coverage across nearly two million hectares of low-shade cocoa growing lands in Ghana.

The study found that establishing appropriately shaded and well-managed cocoa plantations in proposed areas and restoring forest reserves has the potential to protect at least 4,000 tonnes of sediment from erosion each year and store an additional 52 million tonnes of carbon in trees.

While shifting to cocoa agroforestry will entail implementation costs and not yield the immediate financial gains that would be expected from converting further natural forests into cocoa plantations, such a transition stands to yield significant long-term benefits as smallholder farmers face the challenges presented by a changing climate and fluctuating cocoa prices.

There are often many institutional and socio-economic barriers to scaling changes in agricultural systems and this is certainly the case for agroforestry in Ghana. It is also important to consider where the costs of such a transition will lie. To be successful, interventions should factor is these aspects, promote context appropriate system designs and the fact that these systems are dynamic and will require ongoing incentives and support for their long-term success.

“For the benefits of cocoa agroforestry to be fully realised, farmers need to be incentivised to adopt agroforestry practices which are adapted for their needs by giving them ownership of the land that they are farming and the trees that grow there. Sufficiently paying them for the ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation benefits that their land provides would further these incentives by strengthening and diversifying their income too.”

Megan Critchley, UNEP-WCMC Nature-based Solutions Programme Officer and report co-lead

“It is essential to highlight that forest cover in the off-reserve areas of Ghana’s cocoa landscape is completely depleted. Therefore, any such actions and policies to promote and implement agroforestry systems in the cocoa landscape are imperative and must be given the needed support. These actions will go a long way towards improving landscape heterogeneity and connectivity, creating the needed ecosystems for tropical biodiversity conservation and providing other range of ecological and socio-economic benefits.”

George Ashiagbor, KNUST – Lecturer/Remote Sensing and GIS specialist 

Beyond the specific case of Ghana, this study also demonstrates the potential for decision-makers to use spatial planning to understand where and how implementing different types of cocoa agroforestry systems at scale can help meet different (national level) social, climate and nature objectives.

This blog was originallly published on UNEP-WCMC website.

Read the report “Identifying opportunity areas for agroforestry to meet cocoa and forest policy objectives in Ghana.