Worried about Future Cocoa Production in Central America and the Caribbean? Climate Science Can Help Us Prepare

Featured Experts Fabio Castro

Research Assistant, Sustainable Food Systems
Photo by CIAT

Cocoa is an important crop in the economy of thousands of families in Central America and the Caribbean, and in the past decade its production has increased in the region little by little. This crop is not immune to the increases in temperature and the climatic variability that come with climate change. What could be the impact of climate change on cocoa in the Central America and Caribbean region? How could cocoa farmers in this region adapt and become resilient to the changes that lie ahead?

In the atlas “Climate Change Impact on Cocoa Production in Central America and the Caribbean,” which we developed in collaboration with World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and Rikolto, we answer the first question by using “machine learning” models such as Random Forests. By using such a model, we estimated the probability of suitability of cocoa for the baseline (1970 – 2000) and the future (2020 – 2049/2040 – 2069). Data with the presence of cocoa (location of cocoa farms) and climatic variables related to precipitation, temperature, and evapotranspiration (evaporation from the soil and transpiration, or the exhalation of water vapor, from plants) were used for training the models.

The first result of this modeling exercise is defining and elaborating maps of the different “Agro-climatic Zones” suitable for growing cocoa, both for baseline and future climate scenarios. The maps present areas suitable for growing cocoa categorized by the following agro-climatic zones:

  • hot – dry,
  • temperate – very dry,
  • very hot – dry,
  • cold – humid, and
  • temperate – very humid.

From the differentiation of these zones during different periods of time, the impact gradients of these cocoa growing territories are estimated, which indicates the degree of effort that would be needed to continue cultivating cocoa in a sustainable manner. We estimate four different categories of impact gradients: opportunities, incremental adaptation, systemic adaptation, and transformational adaptation. For example, the maps show large areas of transformational adaptation (loss of suitability) on the Pacific coast of El Salvador and Guatemala and large areas of systemic adaptation in Central and Northern Nicaragua. For Dominican Republic, the maps show large areas of incremental transformation and a significant area of ​​opportunities where cocoa cultivation can be expanded.

Four categories on impact gradients

Opportunities: Areas whose climate, at present, is not ideal for cocoa, but in the future gain suitability for cultivation.

Incremental adaptation: Areas where climate is more likely to remain adequate and adaptation is achieved through a change in practices and strategies and facilitators ideally improved.

Systemic adaptation: Areas where the climate is more likely to remain adequate, but with stress substantial in normal production systems and adaptation will require a comprehensive change and a redesign of the system.

Transformational adaptation: Areas where climate is more likely to make cocoa production unviable, and adaptation requires a redesign of the production system or change to new crops.

Workshops were held in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic during October and November 2018. During these workshops, over 100 key regional cocoa sector stakeholders discussed the results of the modeling, including representatives of growers associations and members of the private and public sectors. The workshops helped identify ways to help farmers face climate risks in each climate change impact gradient zone, and feedback was obtained from the stakeholders on results of the modeling.

It was a great experience to be able to share the results of the study with the key stakeholders of the region. The journey confirmed the need to explain the scientific conclusions in common language so there is a better understanding among all actors. My experience was enriching in every sense–when sharing study results and when learning more about regional agricultural practices and learning what each actor would do according to the climate impact gradient categories. In each meeting, we found people eager to contribute to the study by sharing their opinions on the results. I believe that with good planning, effective participation of diverse actors, and the fusion of science and empirical knowledge, we can build a front to face climate change.

Photo by CIAT
Photo by CIAT

Key elements of the work were implemented as part of:

To face the challenges of climate change and improve the livelihoods of cocoa families, it is urgent to promote climate-smart cocoa agroforestry systems. To design these systems, specific information is needed on climate trends and appropriate practices for each of the territories. CIAT, Rikolto and WCF developed this Atlas with maps and data, which will serve to deepen knowledge about the impact of climate change and analyze adaptation and mitigation options for the different cocoa territories of the region.

Falguni Guharay Falguni Guharay Program Manager Latin America, Climate Smart Cocoa, World Cocoa Foundation

To learn more about the study and cocoa programs contact us:

Christian Bunn, Postdoctoral Scientist-Sustainable Food Systems, CIAT c.bunn@cgiar.org

Fabio A. Castro-Llanos, Researcher, Sustainable Food Systems, CIAT f.castro@cgiar.org

Jennifer Wiegel, Regional Coordinator Central America, CIAT j.wiegel@cgiar.org

Falguni Guharay Program Manager Latin America, FTF-Climate Smart Cocoa, World Cocoa Foundation

Ninoska Hurtado, Regional Coordinator, Knowledge Management for Cocoa Value Chain in Central America (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala y Nicaragua), Rikolto ninoska.hurtado@rikolto.org

The original version of this blog was published in Spanish by CIAT in July 2019.