Guitty Saidou, a farmer in Agboville, Côte d’Ivoire, explains: “Before, I used to plant cocoa without planting other trees. Worse, I would take a piece of forest and clear all the trees away and then plant my cocoa. But for the past five years, I’ve been introducing banana, timber, orange and avocado trees and now things are much better for me”. Before agroforestry, Saidou’s cocoa plantation was suffering from too much sun exposure. “But now, with the other trees around it, the cocoa gives a good harvest because the trees are healthier.”
Across the world, agroforestry is seen as a win-win solution to help farmers, the climate and the environment. Côte d’Ivoire is seeking to restore forest cover across the country from 9% to 20% by 2030, and agroforestry is at the heart of its forest restoration policies. To help reach this target, Côte d’Ivoire plans to rehabilitate 1 million hectares of cocoa in highly degraded forest reserves through agroforestry and forest plantations, and promote agroforestry in 1 million hectares of cocoa, rubber and oil palm in rural areas.
These are ambitious targets over large areas. Where are these areas, can these targets be met, and which areas should be prioritised for what types of benefits?
To answer these questions a team of researchers from the UN Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, supported by UN REDD and CocoaSoils, sought to find out which cocoa growing areas are most suitable for cocoa production now and in the future. We mapped their current non-cocoa tree cover and options for increasing or restoring it to meet policy objectives. We combined and analysed seven major land, forest and cocoa spatial datasets and consulted with local officials, researchers, civil society and major cocoa companies to define agroforestry in the Ivorian context.
We found that across rural areas of Côte d’Ivoire, forest trees could be introduced or increased on 1.8 million hectares of low shade cocoa to meet the basic agroforestry definition of around 30% shade, well exceeding the one-million-hectare national goal for cocoa, oil palm and rubber together.
Within highly degraded forest reserves we found almost 600,000 hectares of low- and partial shade cocoa plantations where tree cover could be increased to meet high shade levels. Assuming the full potential for cocoa agroforestry is met in these areas, the national goal of 20% forest cover could be met, and even exceeded if less degraded classified forests are restored to natural forests.
Implementing agroforestry in current cocoa growing areas alone could potentially help to store an extra 120 million metric tons of carbon.
Diversification and increased resilience thorough cocoa agroforestry will be most beneficial if implemented close to settlements where demand for agroforestry products (e.g. fuelwood, timber, fruit) is high. If these areas are also close to intact forests, they should be prioritised to connect habitats for biodiversity.
We must note that, though agroforests can support important biodiversity, carbon sequestration and other services provided by forests, they are not forests as per most definitions. Natural forests provide higher value services and better habitat for biodiversity conservation. To preserve farmers’ livelihoods, Côte d’Ivoire has chosen agroforestry as a strategy in highly degraded classified forests, rather than natural forest restoration. But, considering the limited area of natural forest remaining in Côte d’Ivoire, it remains crucial to protect and restore these where possible.
The numbers in our study represent the estimated maximum potential. In reality, implementation of agroforestry will depend on a variety of local socio-economic and environmental factors and objectives. Ultimately, success will depend on cocoa farmers receiving support to boost large scale implementation. Our study calls for cocoa and chocolate companies and civil society leaders to support cocoa farmers in transitioning to agroforestry, and we emphasise that they should focus on areas where agroforestry can improve ecosystem services and biodiversity, not reduce them.