Elizabeth Howard

Environmental Associate
World Cocoa Foundation

A Just Transition for Cocoa Farmers

What does a “Just Transition” mean for cocoa farmers, and why is it relevant for the fight against deforestation? I asked myself these questions after my trip to the field coincided with some relevant global discourses on cocoa. Here are some of my reflections.

Almost a month ago now, I visited Ghana for the first time. We drove four hours from Kumasi to Goaso, the capital of the Ahafo region and the Asunafo North Municipality, centered in the middle of the broader Asunafo-Asutifi landscape. Along the way, we saw mostly shrubs, smaller trees, or cocoa plantations on either side of the road for almost the whole ride. On the dustier roads that hadn’t seen rain for a while, a thick cloud of red soil permeated the drive and blanketed the vegetation as motorcyclists sped by. Several times over the course of the trip, we would pass a range of logging activities from semitrucks parked alongside the road loaded with huge trees to personal vehicles with precariously stacked cut lumber. I learned that, often, they were illegally cut.

One of my colleagues that I accompanied told stories about how the drive to Goaso had changed significantly within his lifetime, he recalled that only 20 years ago much of the roads on the drive were encapsulated by a thick canopy of trees and how western Ghana used to have corridors where forest elephants would move into eastern Côte d’Ivoire. Now, the corridors no longer exist and the two elephant populations are fragmented.

As with the introduction of cocoa to West Africa, the overexploitation of tropical forests can be traced back to the colonial era. By the early 1900s, studies estimate that European timber merchants had harvested the vast majority of commercially-valuable timber. Fast forward to the present day, West Africa has lost more than 80% of what remained at the turn of the twentieth century. Much of what was lost since 2020 is credited to agricultural expansion, and as the second leading producer country of cocoa beans worldwide, cocoa has also been a leading cause of forest conversion within the nation’s High Forest Zone. Studies estimate that if the current trend of deforestation continues, Ghana’s forests could be gone entirely within 25 years.

About 1 billion people in the world live in forest fringe communities that rely on the forest for their livelihood, and in Ghana, this population is mainly farmers. When speaking to multiple farmers and community members on my trip, they mentioned that climate change was a significant concern for their livelihoods. Despite global efforts to reduce emissions and meet the  target of keeping global warming to 1.5C, the effects of climate change will only become more noticeable and will continue to affect the most vulnerable populations much more. Many places in Africa will reach 2 °C of warming before the end of the century.

The increasing vulnerability of forest fringe communities should be at the forefront of our minds as we continue to decarbonize the agricultural sector because their well-being is inextricably linked to the stewardship of natural resources. With this in mind, I began to do some preliminary research on what a “Just transition” might look like for cocoa with regard to preventing deforestation by transitioning farmers to practices such as agroforestry and “More Cocoa on Less Land.”

Firstly, what is a “Just Transition,” and where did it come from? In the late 1970s, US labor and environmental justice movements first coined the term “Just Transition” to describe and advocate for a human-centric approach to making sector-wide efforts more sustainable and equitable. The term has since gained the most traction within the context of decarbonizing the energy sector. However, this is a burgeoning topic for agriculture, lacking a fully-articulated sector-wide goal, let alone one specifically for cocoa. For example, Nestlé, which was represented on the Delivering a just transition in food and agriculture panel at COP27, is one of the first cocoa companies to refer to and aim for a cocoa Just Transition. To me, the lack of a defined sector approach makes it an exciting opportunity for cocoa to step forward and lead the way as an industry by carving a bold pathway forward.

One of the most robust and relevant explanations of the Just Transition framework I’ve seen, which could be helpful to build off of for cocoa, was founded by the Climate Justice Alliance. They define a Just Transition as “a host of strategies to transition whole communities to build thriving economies that provide dignified, productive and ecologically sustainable livelihoods; democratic governance and ecological resilience.”

In the panel at COP27, Haley St. Dennis from IHRB highlighted regenerative agriculture and living income as two essential pillars of the Just Transitions for the agriculture sector. She went on to elaborate on fundamental principles for businesses to integrate into their strategies for the agriculture sector, including:

  1. Farmer-focused: ensuring that farmers and affected groups will benefit and be better off;
  2. Participatory: establishing procedural rights for participation and inclusion, trust-building with farmers and indigenous groups;
  3. Transformational: ensuring truly transformational interventions by addressing unequal access to essential resources and involving young people