Fighting Climate Change and Poverty with Agroforestry

Author Petra Heid

Head of Sustainability
Chocolats Halba
Photo by Chocolats Halba

During the 2018 Partnership Meeting, Petra Heid, head of sustainability for WCF member Chocolats Halba, gave an inspiring talk on dynamic agroforestry as part of the ‘Farm-Level Incentives for Forest Positive Cocoa’ session. If you missed it, read this interview to find out more about the Swiss chocolate maker’s sweeping sustainability strategy based on direct sourcing, dynamic agroforestry, and partnerships with smallholder farmers. This strategy will help Chocolats Halba deliver on its commitments as part of the Cocoa & Forests Initiative to end deforestation in the cocoa supply chain.

Why did Chocolats Halba decide to prioritize dynamic agroforestry?

When we started to explore global sustainability issues, notably environmental issues, as a company, we saw climate change, loss of biodiversity, and water scarcity as major pain points. We feel that tackling these issues should be a priority not only for individuals, but also for companies. Dynamic agroforestry, i.e. agriculture within a diversified and layered ecosystem with a closed nutrient cycle, is a holistic means of fulfilling our responsibility when it comes to these issues. I studied geo-ecology, so I understood agroforestry and how it should be managed. I knew the benefits were not only environmental but included improved productivity and enhanced farmer livelihoods. Poverty is often linked to poorly managed farms. With agroforestry, we can cover multiple issues, including social issues, with one approach.

In its commitment to the environment, Chocolats Halba does not only focus on agroforestry work: it plants 140 trees every day in a reforestation project to offset company and product CO2 emissions.

How can agroforestry help tackle climate change?

First, dynamic agroforestry means much more canopy cover and carbon sequestration than monoculture. On our projects, we have a huge density of trees, from 2,000 to 3,000 trees per hectare (833 cocoa trees; 120 timber trees occupying the over and high story; 208 biomass trees; 833 plantain/banana trees; 192 fruit trees such as avocado, orange, and mango; 833 cashew plants, and 69 palms).

Second, with the added shade, humidity and water storage on the plantation is higher. The high amounts of organic matter allow the soil to sequester water with much more efficiency. When rain falls, it gets stored in the organic matter and in the living plants, creating a suitable microclimate for the plantation. Soil erosion due to rain is minimal in an agroforestry system.

Third, thanks to mixed cultivation, the soil stays nutrient rich. Large quantities of biomass are produced and not cleared away but left on the ground to return their nutrients to the soil. Soils remain fertile, plants are stronger and more resistant to diseases, weather extremes, and climate change. Artificial fertilizer and pesticides are not needed.

Fourth, because farmers’ living income is lifted through better productivity and diversification, they are less tempted to encroach on protected areas to plant more cocoa. The pressure on valuable forests decreases a lot.

How did Chocolats Halba get started on this journey?

Everything started in 2010 with a CO2 compensation project in Honduras and Peru. We wanted to compensate our CO2 footprint, which comes from our factory and transportation usage. If our clients want a CO2 neutral chocolate, we need to be able to offer that product, and have the appropriate certification. Timber trees can be great to compensate our carbon footprint, but often these trees were grown separately from the plantation, so they did not benefit the cocoa trees. We looked at how to combine CO2 reforestation activities with a holistic cocoa production.

In 2016, we implemented a drastic approach in Ecuador— the transformation of a low/no-productive cocoa plantation into a highly diversified and therefore highly productive cocoa. This approach is demanding and know-how-intensive. We have therefore opted for the “train the trainer” method: local cocoa farmers are trained as agroforestry experts and become able to coach other cocoa producers as they convert to agroforestry. In order to make sure that all trainers are prepared for this demanding job, we ask them to work in different cocoa plantations under different production conditions.

When we convert a new farm, we plant all the new trees and plants on the entire perimeter within a two-week window with our trainers and farmers. After two months, we come back and demonstrate how to bring the plantation into balance using strategic pruning. To keep the momentum going, our team visits the plantation regularly to interact with the farmer.

Can you prove that this approach benefits farmers?

In Ecuador, we have shown that, compared to conventional monoculture, farmers see an improvement of their livelihoods from the first year with agroforestry. There is always something to harvest on the plantation, either to feed the family or to sell. One big focus is access to market for diversification products, as we do not want farmers to be frustrated and grow crops without being able to sell them. For example, farmers can sell their mangoes directly to a local processor now, and their plantain and cassava are bought by a chips factory. We have observed two nearby farms during their first year: the monoculture farm had a $200 loss per half hectare while the agroforestry farm had a $500 net gain per half hectare. This is a major difference of income.

When we look at the comparative workload between the two systems, we found a big difference during the first two weeks when creating the plantation. Agroforestry is very labor intensive at the onset, but progressively, the fact that no weeding is necessary relieves the farmer compared to monoculture.

What’s next?

This year, we are going a step further: combining CO2 certification with dynamic agroforestry in Ghana. After planting 15 successful pilot plots in 2016, we now have a large-scale project becoming a reality near Kumasi. We need to make sure that all the timber trees in our project cocoa farms are fulfilling the ‘gold standard’ certification criteria: to produce long term CO2 compensation.

Within this project, 100 producers will plant a quarter hectare of dynamic agroforestry on their farms in April 2019. This is limited in scope so that farmers are able to learn and compare before hopefully adopting dynamic agroforestry on their entire farms. Before 2024, we aim to reach 400 hectares of dynamic agroforestry planted in the region and to work with 400 farmers. Additionally, as of 2024, we want to have 2,500 farmers prepared to adopt dynamic agroforestry to multiply our impact and scale up even further.

We are a small company, and this is a four million US dollar project. We have therefore entered into broad partnerships with Kuapa Kokoo, Fairtrade Africa, ITC (International Trade Centre), WWF and the YDC (Yam Development Council). In addition, our parent company, the Swiss retailer Coop, is compensating their CO2 emissions with this project. We also have financial support from the Swiss government and from ITC.