Chocolate revolution

For years, West Africa's cocoa farmers were accused of destroying the rainforest. But, as Fred Pearce discovers, they are now credited with saving the environment
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The Independent Online

Tony Blair paid an unexpected visit to a cocoa plantation deep inside Ghana last week during his whistle-stop tour of Africa. While he was there he heard first hand about the stiff trade tariffs imposed by the European Union, which are stifling investment in the "coal face" of the chocolate business. On top of this, cocoa farming was already reeling from the fallout of reports last year that some farmers were using child slaves to harvest the cocoa beans in Côte d'Ivoire. But there is one glimmer of hope in nearby Cameroon.

Cameroon is fast becoming a model of cocoa production. Scientists say that cocoa farms there employ no slave labour and could be the good guys in environmental terms. In fact, they might even be the key to saving the central African rainforest. And, in the wake of the slave scandal, British chocolate manufacturers are backing them.

Joseph Essissima is a typical example of the new-old breed of cocoa farmer. He first planted his cocoa trees in the bush outside Yaoundé, the capital of Cameroon, 60 years ago, hacking down the jungle to fill the confectionery shelves of Europe and America. Ever since, ecologists have branded Essissima and his fellow cocoa farmers as environmental hooligans.

But now the ecologists have changed their tune. They are praising him, and even bringing journalists such as myself to visit him. They want to help him make more money out of his trees so he can plant even more. They say that planting cocoa could be the best way to save Africa's greatest rainforest, which stretches from the south of Cameroon into the Congo basin.

"Cocoa was an important agent of deforestation during the 20th century," says François Ruf of France's Centre for International Co-operation in Agronomic Research and Development. As late as the Seventies, farmers in southern Cameroon were among the rainforest's biggest pillagers. But, he insists, "in the 21st century, cocoa may switch from being an agent of deforestation to one of reforestation".

So what is going on? Cameroon farmers grow 120,000 tonnes of cocoa a year, most of it on smallholdings of a hectare or less close to the forests. But cocoa cultivation here is unusually benign to the environment. Essissima took me into his plantation. It felt more like a rainforest than a farm: dark, dank and full of life. Fruit trees were dotted around – oranges and mangoes, avocados and cherry. Some original rainforest trees have been kept for their timber, their medicinal bark and to provide shade. Of one tree he said: "We keep this one because it attracts caterpillars that we eat."

Researcher are equally enthusiastic. Cameroon's cocoa forests are quite unlike the open monocultures of Côte d'Ivoire. They are biologically very diverse, with more than half as many species as a natural forest. And these "agroforests" seem to be sustainable. Soil scientists told me that Essissima's smallholding is as fertile as when he first planted. The number of earthworms – a key test of the forest floor's ability to recycle nutrients – is almost as high as in a natural rainforest.

"By maintaining a shady canopy of diverse forest species, these farmers manage one of the most biologically diverse land use systems in Africa," says Jim Gockowski of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Yaoundé, who has studied their methods. "If they don't plant cocoa, they do slash-and-burn farming," says Gockowski.

Most of the world's rainforests have been lost to slash-and-burn farming. The forest is cleared wholesale, and planted with maize or oil-palm or turned over to cattle – whatever happens to be most profitable at the time. But after two or three years the soil loses its fertility and farmers abandon it and move on. It can take as much as 30 years before the soil becomes fit to grow more crops.

Across southern Cameroon, large areas of former rainforest land are now lying fallow. Yet in their midst, the cocoa forests, once dismissed as just another scar on the natural landscape, are now green oases – fecund and bio-diverse. Now wonder researchers are flooding here to see what the farmers are doing right. "In many ways, the environmental benefits of a closed, natural forest are now being provided by cultivated forests of cocoa and fruit trees," says the IITA's station chief in Yaoundé, Stephan Weise.

But these researchers are not just writing scientific papers. They also have a development agenda. "Why not convert the large areas of unused fallow former forest into cocoa forest?" asks Weise. "If we can do that, we will create a physical and economic buffer to protect the surviving natural rainforest."

A few farmers are taking up the challenge. Not far from Essissima's smallholding I met Madame Abomo, a widow who is growing cocoa trees and bananas in abandoned maize fields. But most farmers are moving in the opposite direction. And they have one good reason. Cash.

For years, cocoa was a profitable crop in Cameroon. The government guaranteed good prices. But in the past decade, the International Monetary Fund has forced privatisation of the marketing system; then the international price of cocoa fell by two thirds. It has still not recovered.

It has been hard for the farmers. The state purchasing authority has been replaced by a long line of middle men between the forests and the coastal port of Douala, where the big international cocoa conglomerates buy at rock-bottom prices. The tragedy is that at the very time when cocoa emerges as an environmentally friendly crop, its profitability slumps. Larger farms in Côte d'Ivoire claim that low prices mean they need child labour to survive.

Companies such as Mars don't buy cocoa from Cameroon direct, but through the big trading and milling conglomerates. And Mars is worried. It fears the market free-for-all could jeopardise its supplies, and may create more PR disasters like the chocolate slave story. In Yaoundé, I met Martin Gilmour, the cocoa research manager for Mars.

"We would like to see some of the middle men removed and farmers getting higher prices for their cocoa. It would be better for both of us," he says. "African farmers receive only 45-50 per cent of the world market price, whereas in Indonesia, farmers get 65-70 per cent. If they stop growing cocoa in Africa because it is unprofitable, we are in trouble."

Sustainability is also a key issue for both producers and buyers. Research into the forest ecosystems is underway, but improvements in cocoa and fruit-tree varieties and more effective disease control will be useless unless the farmers can win a proper price for their product.

Many ecologists believe that agroforestry on the model of the Cameroon cocoa forests is the only way that many of the world's rainforests can be saved. And yet there is a real risk that the model itself will expire before it can be properly researched and copied.