A New Take on Large-Scale Agroforestry Systems in Cocoa

Author Carolina Mejía

Project Manager
12Tree
Photo by 12Tree

Cocoa agroforestry systems, which include the cultivation and conservation of trees, are known to increase a farm’s environmental resilience. But they can also increase its economic resilience. Investors and producers can be convinced of the importance of agroforestry by presenting both the environmental and economic benefits of properly designed and managed agroforestry systems.

Cocoa trees are native to the tropical rainforests of Southern Mexico and South America. Cocoa’s natural environment, however, favors fungal diseases, which can decrease the plant’s productivity. This is why drier climates are needed to set up new cocoa farms. These new climatic conditions brought new challenges such as water availability, organic matter in soil, and adequate nutrition programs.

In South America, some cocoa producers decided to establish monoculture cocoa farms in dry climates with irrigation systems that meet the water demand and compensate for evapotranspiration (evaporation from the soil and transpiration from plants) rates in such conditions. However, with climate change, these dry zone farms may have less available water over time. As rainfall decreases and temperature increases, deeper wells and bigger water reservoirs will be needed. These factors, combined with a volatile market, have forced agriculture-oriented companies, such as 12Tree Finance, to look at agroforestry with new eyes.

In the past, smallholders used different levels of canopies and crops in their agroforestry systems. Today, cocoa agroforestry uses moderate shade while maintaining the environmental services of a traditional agroforestry farm, such as the protection of younger plants from radiation and extreme heat, reduced evapotranspiration rates, and increased organic matter in the soil over time. By reducing evapotranspiration, the amount of water required by the main crop is significantly reduced farm’s soil. Lower water requirements mean less money spent on pumps, wells and reservoirs, and less energy consumption because of shorter irrigation turns. In other words, lower operation costs.

Using plants from the bean and pea family, such as pigeon peas or madre cacao, as primary shade can also be planted on the farm, as they help fix nitrogen in the soil. Shade decreases the amount of weeds in the farm, lowering the costs of weeding in the operation and ensuring fertilization is more effective. For example, in 12Tree’s Cuango Farm, we planted pigeon peas trees as primary shade trees to help fix nitrogen and Gliricidia sepium (madre cacao), a nitrogen-fixing tree usually associated with cacao plantations, as a mid-term nitrogen fixing shade plant. With shade trees, the same plot of land can be used to produce two or more crops that are linked to different markets, increasing the economic resilience of a farm. For example, many cocoa farmers use bananas and plantains as shade crops, as they are typically consumed in cocoa producing countries. This local market for the shade crops brings an earlier profit return to the farm. An added benefit is that banana trees also attract cocoa pollinators. Cocoa is not pollinated by common honeybees, but by Forcipomyia, a tiny midge that is attracted by decaying organic matter, like plantain and banana stems.

As we see here, agroforestry systems don’t only contribute to environmental conservation, but can also increase the chances of a successful cocoa farm both from an agronomic and economic point of view.

Cocoa planted with rubber and Congo grass as a cover crop on the Chimelb Farm in the Coban region of Guatemala. Photo by 12Tree
The “Cuango” Farm serves as a corridor between forests for local howler monkeys in Panama. Photo by 12Tree
Banana plants shade cocoa seedlings on the Cuango Farm in Panama. Photo by 12Tree
Young cocoa plants grow under coconut trees on the Ambrosia Farm in the Dominican Republic. Photo by 12Tree