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Ghana has one of the highest rates of deforestation in all of Africa.

On the face of it, the big culprit is cocoa, and the insatiable global demand for chocolate. But, if you look behind the scenes, it’s a more nuanced story of struggling farmers and falling yields.

Between them, the Ghanian government and the world’s biggest chocolate makers have a recipe for recovery – which they describe as world’s first commodity-based emission reductions programme.

We take a look at what’s happening on the ground.

The story of modern Ghana is tied inextricably to the story of chocolate.

When the country became independent on 6 March 1957, it was the world’s largest grower of cocoa beans, and the chief source of revenue was cocoa exports. To mark Ghana’s birth, the normally frenetic New York Cocoa Exchange fell quiet as trading was ceremonially suspended and everyone was asked to meditate silently for the success of the new nation and the welfare of its people. Within a week, however, in the face of a tumbling cocoa market, it was reported that the fledgling nation’s economic plans were in tatters[1].

Today, Ghana may be less exposed to the vagaries of the global cocoa market. Gold and oil are now the leading exports, Ghana’s vibrant digital sector is among the most dynamic in Africa and, following the interruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy has returned to steady growth. But, even so, cocoa still plays an outsize role in the fortunes of Ghana, its people, and its environment.

The country continues to supply a fifth of the world’s cocoa, and 2021 brought the largest ever crop, at an estimated 1,047 thousand tonnes[2]. The commodity directly employs 800,000 farmers, almost a third of the entire population are dependent on it for at least some of their income[3], and global demand is set to remain strong – with global chocolate consumption forecast to continue to climb steadily at around 5% a year[4].

Of course, there is an innate tension between cocoa production and forest conservation.

The cocoa bean thrives best in the humid reaches of the high forest and, for more than a century, Ghana’s cocoa plantations have vied for space with natural vegetation. Consequently, at more than 3% annually, Ghana has one of the highest deforestation rates in Africa[5]. In 2021 alone, a further 101,000 hectares of natural forest cover was lost[6], mainly to cocoa production. Yet, an enthusiastic coalition of the Ghanian government, the conservation community, and the global cocoa industry remain confident that future demand can be comfortably met – while also reversing the process of deforestation, avoiding emissions, protecting biodiversity, and improving the livelihoods of local people.

Taking a collective, commodity-based approach

Ghana is taking what it calls a commodity-based approach to forest conservation. In simple terms, this means the government, in the guise of the Ghana Forestry Commission, has joined forces with the chocolate industry to resolve the innate tensions between cocoa production and forest preservation.

A decade or two ago, when the world was first becoming aware of the threats to our forests, there was a pervasive belief that big business alone should have the power to halt agriculturally-driven deforestation. The logic was compelling. By wielding their influence and insisting their own supply chains became deforestation-free, the world’s biggest consumer goods companies should be able to set the global standard – reducing the incentives for farmers to encroach further into the forests, and squeezing out any remaining pockets of bad practice.

But this was to underestimate the complexities at play. And the global conservation community has since arrived at the view that the policing of commodity supply chains needs to be supplemented by more holistic and integrated landscape-based programmes – through which governments, companies, communities, and conservationists agree on shared goals and work together on co-ordinated initiatives which address forest protection and preservation in tandem with sustainable production, farmer livelihoods, community engagement and social inclusion.

It is a little like a popular online video in which 100 schoolchildren played a game of soccer against three professional footballers[7]. Swarming across the pitch, the debutants showed plenty of commitment, but lacked experience, had no collective gameplan, and quickly lost out to the more clinical and coordinated approach of the seasoned players. In some ways, landscape programmes reflect the approach of the professionals, whereas the ad hoc initiatives of the past, working individually and sometimes at cross purposes, are more akin to their eager opponents.

Given the social and economic importance of cocoa, the route taken by Ghana has been to keep the supply chain initiatives at the centre of its thinking, while also addressing the wider needs, the values and the livelihoods of the communities who produce the beans – in what the government describes as “the world’s first commodity-based emission reductions programme”[8].

Getting to the roots of the issue

Despite its prevalence, cocoa is not native to Ghana (it was first brought to the country in 1876 when, returning from Equatorial Guinea, Tetteh Quarshie, a local blacksmith, smuggled in a few handfuls of beans hidden beneath his box of tools and earned his place in history as a national hero). Instead, cocoa hails from the Amazon Basin rainforests where, for millennia, it has grown under the moist, shady forest canopy.

For its first hundred years or so, Ghanian cocoa farming mimicked these natural conditions, and the beans coexisted quite comfortably with the native forest. But, from the latter part of the twentieth century, in an officially sanctioned attempt to boost production, the all-important shade trees were progressively removed, and monoculture began to predominate. This did result in short-term productivity gains, but shortened the productive life of trees, and brought increased susceptibility to disease. With the resulting loss in biodiversity, it also had a negative impact on fertilisation levels. And it encouraged farmers to keep edging their way into forests to chase new, albeit temporary, yield increases.

Today, many of Ghana’s cocoa plantations are in a sorry state. Typically, they offer no or low shade to a ragtag collection of low-yield, disease-prone trees. To compound issues, the loss of forest cover also has an impact on local rainfall levels, which further diminishes yields, while the reduction in biodiversity limits the prevalence of cocoa-pollinating insects.

Why it’s necessary to keep local communities at the heart of any solution

All the while, the cocoa farming community faces a precarious existence.

The land they farm is often collectively owned by so called stools or chieftaincies, and individual families have inherited the right to cultivate it through traditional sharecropping systems. Typically, the farms are quite small, ranging from less than a hectare (around the size of a football pitch), to a maximum of ten hectares[9]. The farmers themselves are often ageing, their incomes are rarely above subsistence levels[10] and, with no generational memory of the pre-monoculture area, they are seldom equipped with the knowledge, much less the resources, to make any meaningful improvements.

As an added complication, the state has traditionally claimed ownership of all naturally occurring trees, including those on private or collectively owned land. This has given farmers little incentive to nurture shade trees – for fear of losing them to loggers and having their plantations damaged in the process.

The average yield, estimated at 400 kilogrammes of cocoa beans per hectare[11], is woefully low – compared to an estimated 800 kilogrammes in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire[12] which, back in the 1970s, overtook Ghana to become the world’s leading producer.

So, clearly, the farmers themselves need to be placed at the centre of any solution. And, to secure a future supply of deforestation-free beans, it is critical for the cocoa industry to place as much emphasis on community and social inclusion as it does on forest protection and restoration.

Unable to see the wood for the trees?

So, what are Ghana and its private sector partners doing to address the challenges?

To the uninitiated, it can be a real struggle to understand the details. In a recent editorial, the Financial Times lamented the fact that, all too often, the debate on climate change is obscured by “tiresome abbreviations” and “jargon that clogs understanding” in a way that is “actively harmful”[13]. And, when researching the Ghanian deforestation debate, you do soon find yourself swimming in a sea of acronyms – among them the CFI (the Cocoa & Forests Initiative), the WCF (the World Cocoa Foundation), the GCFRP (the Ghana Cocoa Forest REDD+ Program), the FCPF (the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility), the CLP (the Cocoa Life Program), the HIAs (Hotspot Intervention Areas) the CORIP (the Cocoa Rehabilitation and Improvement Program), and many, many more.

The fact is, this barrage of jargon and acronyms does reflect the complexity of the situation, the tangled knot of interconnected issues at play, and the diverse coalition of organisations and people involved. But, at the risk of gross over-simplification, here is a summary of what is being done...

Working hand-in-hand with local communities to rejuvenate farmland

The effort is being led by Ghana’s Forestry Commission, with the backing of the global chocolate industry, drawing on funds from the World Bank. Together, they have identified six distinct landscapes (the Hotspot Intervention Areas or HIAs) within Ghana’s high forest zone, with a combined area of 5.9 million hectares (about twice the size of Belgium), where cocoa production is intensive (taking up a third of the total land area), and deforestation rates are high. For each HIA, a Landscape Management and Investment Plan is being established, and the aim is to work hand-in-hand with the local communities, helping them rejuvenate their existing farmland and restore degraded forest while, at the same time, improving their livelihoods.

In areas where the forest has been entirely cleared, the emphasis is on sustainable production, including planting new shade trees, replacing old or diseased cocoa plants with healthy young equivalents, and lifting yields through, for example, hand pollination and irrigation schemes (to help offset the impact of deforestation). And, in areas where the forest has merely been degraded, an agroforestry model is encouraged.

An important component (sorry, but this particular acronym is unavoidable) is financing from REDD+, the UN forest protection scheme. Ghana was one of the first African countries to successfully implement large-scale or jurisdictional REDD+ programmes, and is expected to be a recipient of additional funding from (here comes another one) the LEAF Coalition, a new scheme launched in 2021 as a high-integrity platform for companies to buy emissions reduction credits – which promises to channel payments at speed, directly to the communities involved.

A phased approach is being taken. The Asunafo-Asutifi landscape in the southwest of the country was selected as a test case, and the learnings are being progressively applied in the other five. In each one, local forums are created to enable local communities to take ownership of the process, and partners are enlisted to deliver the plan (in Asunafo-Asutifi, for example, the NGO Proforest is helping to facilitate the plan, and the global snack company Mondelez which was already running similar programmes in the area, is providing practical support in mapping farmland, training farmers, providing seedlings, and improving access to micro-finance).

When speaking to people directly involved, both from the public and private sectors, you soon detect a mood of optimism, bordering on excitement. Despite the disruption wrought by the pandemic, the Asunafo-Asutifi test case is moving at pace, and the other five regions are keen to play catch-up. Some important regulatory headway has also been made on the tree tenure issue, enabling farmers to assume ownership of the shade trees on their land for the first time. And, between them, the Forestry Commission and the cocoa industry have drawn up a clear set of engagement principles providing a clear roadmap for any companies that want to get more directly involved, ensuring that their initiatives contribute to the greater good.

Realistic yet transformational targets

A characteristic of any jurisdictional REDD+ initiative is measurable, scientific targets.

And, if you look at the targets that have been committed to in Ghana, you begin to appreciate how achievable they are and how transformational they would be.

One of the most telling targets is to take average cocoa yields to 600 kilograms per hectare[14]. That is just three-quarters of the yield in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire, and two-thirds of the yield in Vietnam. So, yes, it is eminently achievable. But, even so, it represents a 50% uplift of the current performance – so translates to a sustainable 50% increase in farmers’ revenues, while simultaneously eliminating the drivers of further deforestation, restoring degraded areas, and protecting biodiversity.

It's easy to see why people are getting excited.

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