“For us Cocoa Farmers, our Problem is Climate Change”

Cocoa Diaries Yao Ahou

Cocoa Farmer
Ndenou, Lagunes district, Côte d'Ivoire
Yao Ahou stands proudly next to an Acacia Mangium, which provides shade, barrier for some insects, fodder for farm animals, soil restoration, and other benefits to cocoa farms

Yao Ahou has learned much in her 60 years, including two certainties she makes sure to emphasize. “We will always be in the cocoa,” she said, standing among the pod-flecked trees on her three-hectare plot in southern Côte d’Ivoire. “We will always do it. This is how we eat.” But there is an increasing challenge to the life she knows.

“For us cocoa farmers, our problem is climate change,” said the unmarried mother of two adult daughters. “When we expect the rains, it is the sun that comes up, and when the sun is expected, it is the rains that come. That really confuses us, especially the cocoa trees that need the rain to produce.” Shifting weather patterns add to the hardships faced in the cocoa belt of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, where most of the core ingredient for the world’s chocolate is grown.

The unreliable rains, hotter temperatures and other impacts of climate change make it harder to address longstanding challenges such as widespread poverty, lack of access to education, and pervasive child labor issues. Efforts by national and local governments and the cocoa industry to increase the income of farmers and provide education and training opportunities have helped Yao and others increase their production and send their children to school. Now they must learn to deal with the changing climate.

“It’s hard,” she said. “We don’t know how to change the rain. That’s not good.” Asked what could bring back the rains, Yao again sounded certain. “It is only God who can bring the rain,” she said. A minute later, though, she provides a scientific explanation for the drop in precipitation, honed from her experience and the training she has received from the local Société Cooperative Anouanze de N’Denou. “There is less rain because we cut down all the big trees,” Yao said. “We took down all the big trees that could get the steam up in the air to attract the rain. Really, if we could have more of these big trees there, it can cover the cocoa trees, protect them a little bit against the sun, but the soil will not be humid because there is no rain.”

Other training focused on modern practices learned at what she called “farm school.” “They taught us how to maintain the field, how to do the planting, do the bags, remove the shoots, remove the black pods, how to look after the farm so it stays clean, and how to avoid insects that will damage the plants,” she said. For example, “we were told not to apply herbicides, which is used to kill the herbs, we were told not to put it in the farm,” Yao said. “And we were told not to make traps to kill animals, and we were told not to make children work on the farms. So all this we avoid doing.”

Another program included measured the plots and photographed the farmers working them to establish ownership of the land. “It’s better to do this, so if there is a debate, we know that it is him to whom the farm belongs,” she said. “Here we don’t have what you call land titles, so this helps.”

When money is low for fertilizers, Yao learned to compost rotting cocoa pods “to give strength to the soil for the trees.” When the dry season comes, avoid fires at the plantation, she was told, and plant the big trees to shade the cocoa trees so they can maintain as much of the decreasing rain moisture as possible.

All lessons of a life growing cocoa, some new and some older than the trees she nurtures. And now her children, with their academic degrees, must return to grow cocoa when they can, Yao insisted. “Whatever the intellectual level, my son or my daughter has to plant a cocoa farm,” she said. “Here at home it is cocoa, so it’s compulsory. Even children who are educated will always do the cocoa farm.”

  • The cooperative building in N'Denou

  • Yao Ahou stands proudly next to an Acacia Mangium, which provides shade, barrier for some insects, fodder for farm animals, soil restoration, and other benefits to cocoa farms

  • Yao Ahou's cocoa farm