Terry Slavin reports on how the industry’s promises to raise incomes and make farmers more productive in Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire have not yet resulted in lower deforestation risk

More than two years since the cocoa industry signed the ground-breaking Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) with the governments of Ghana and Côte D’Ivoire, deforestation-free chocolate is still elusive, according to new research from the NGO Mighty Earth and by Lumina Intelligence.

Despite 34 companies, accounting for 85% of global cocoa usage, signing up to the CFI since its launch at the COP24 climate summit in Bonn in 2017, deforestation has persisted in the two west African countries, which produce 62% of the world’s cocoa, something conservationists say is driving species like forest elephants and chimpanzees to the brink of extinction.

Côte d’Ivoire has lost approximately 90% of its forests due to cocoa cultivation since independence, according to Mighty Earth. The country’s remaining forest lies in national parks and 18 forest reserves, but one study in 2014 found that 74% of nominally protected forest had illegally been converted into cocoa plantations.

Mapping in the cocoa heartland of Côte d’Ivoire’s south west in 2018 found 13,748ha of forest loss, equivalent to 15,000 football fields

A World Bank report in 2017 highlighted how extreme poverty forces farmers to plant in protected areas amid declining yields from aging cocoa trees, lack of good agricultural practices, and shrinking suitable land area due to climate change – something that the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana had turned a blind eye to until the CFI was signed.

According to Mighty Earth, the picture has not improved in the past two years. Mapping by the NGO in the cocoa heartland of Côte d’Ivoire’s south west cocoa in 2018 found 13,748ha of forest loss, equivalent to 15,000 football fields, not much less than the 21,000 football fields recorded in 2017 and more than the 13,000 football fields of forest lost in 2016.

Oliver Nieburg, author of a 109-page report Life on land: Halting cocoa-driven deforestation for Lumina Intelligence, said the 2017 agreement, brokered by the Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), and the World Cocoa Federation, was a huge step forward in that it brought companies into collaboration with the governments of Côte D’Ivoire and Ghana.

Deforestation in west Africa is driving species like chimpanzees to the brink of extinction. (Credit: neelsky/Shutterstock)

It also prompted them to move beyond due diligence approaches of certification to setting time-bound targets to reduce deforestation risk, with programmes to increase farmer incomes and productivity by growing more cocoa on less land, and introduce regenerative agroforestry methods.

The report highlighted success that Olam Cocoa has had with its “one farmer, one acre” approach in Ghana, where the company sends local “pruning teams” into cocoa communities to prune a single acre of neglected cocoa trees, resulting in trees that are more productive, and setting a positive example for neighbouring cocoa farmers. According to Olam, farmers have typically seen a 50% increase in yields per hectare, generating some $900 increased revenue to bolster family incomes.

But according to the Lumina report such agroforestry programmes are limited, and in Côte D’Ivoire only extend to 6% of the entire cocoa area. High cost and slow payback are the biggest barriers, according to the report, as it typically costs more than $1,000 per ha to move from monoculture cocoa to agroforestry, and five to 10 years for the new system to contribute meaningfully to farmer income.

Farmers are so far below the poverty line, even if they are being offered support, not everyone one will be able to take up those options

“Every sustainability project and programme I’ve seen on cocoa over the past 10 years has aimed to increase farmer incomes by growing more cocoa on less land, but I’ve seen very, very few actually prove they can do it at scale,” Nieburg said.

“So many farmers are so far below the poverty line, even if they are being trained in good agricultural practices and are being offered support and financial products, not everyone one will be able to take up those options.”

And he said even within individual company supply chains, sustainability commitments only cover a portion of their supply, with 40% of the volumes of cocoa sourced in Cote D’Ivoire falling outside such commitments, allowing cocoa from deforested areas to be laundered via the mass balance system.


Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana produce 62% of the world’s cocoa. (Credit: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

“We’ve seen that deforestation has continued and I believe we should judge [the CFI’s] impact by final results on the ground,” Nieberg said. “A lot of it is companies are working within their own supply chains rather than with their competitors at a broader landscape level.”

Etelle Higonnet, senior campaign director of Mighty Earth agreed, telling Ethical Corporation that the Cocoa & Forests Initiative “has helped move mentalities and mindsets of individual companies, but it hasn’t brought about the revolutionary change needed to end deforestation”. 

One big concern is that while companies have invested in their own traceability mechanisms to get a handle on their cocoa supply chains, the CFI has not yet fulfilled its promise to bring in a satellite-based monitoring system publicly available for all stakeholders to measure and monitor progress on the overall deforestation target.

Significant problems were found at four firms responsible for auditing most of the certified farms in Côte d’Ivoire

“It’s not until you do a joint [monitoring] mechanism that you can save a lot of money and respond robustly to [deforestation] alerts as they happen on the ground.”

She is highly critical of Rainforest Alliance, which last year merged with the Dutch certifier UTZ, and accounts for two-thirds of the world’s supply of certified cocoa.

In January, in the absence of a joint monitoring system, Mighty Earth published its Cocoa Accountability Map, an interactive map and integrated database covering nearly 5,000 co-ops in Côte d’Ivoire, using lists of co-ops certified by Rainforest Alliance/UTZ and Fairtrade, as well as those supplying six cocoa companies, including Hershey’s, Lindt, Nestlé, and Valrhona.

This data formed the basis of an article in The Washington Post last October, which quoted an UTZ spokesperson as confirming that more than 4,900 farms certified by Rainforest Alliance/UTZ had been found to be illegally located inside nationally protected forests in Côte d’Ivoire, and that “significant problems” had been found at four firms responsible for auditing most of the certified farms in Côte d’Ivoire.

A woman walks past a banner for the Coffee and Cocoa Council in Côte d’Ivoire. (Credit: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters)

As well as certifying co-ops that are in protected areas and national parks, Higonnet said, “a lot of Rainforest Alliance [certified] co-operatives are located right next to [land that has been newly deforested] in the last two years.”

Questioned by Ethical Corporation about the Washington Post report, Rainforest Alliance’s CEO Han de Groot said in an email: “We welcome inputs such as this as they help inform our continued efforts to improve conditions on certified farms and plantations in the 60 countries where we work. We believe we have a shared responsibility, along with other actors in the global supply chain, to help bring more sustainability to the cocoa sector in West Africa.”

He said Rainforest Alliance had done its own risks analysis in Côte d'Ivoire in 2018, which identified 61 high-risk certified groups, of which only nine received a renewed certificate for the current season.

We are reimagining certification and trying to take it to a higher level

Four auditing firms (AfriCert, Bureau Norme Audit, Bureau Veritas and Control Union) were reprimanded, while two were prohibited from conducting certification audits or certifying any new clients.

Last April, Rainforest Alliance launched a Cocoa Assurance Plan, which  includes a one-year pause on any new cocoa certifications in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the de-certification of select certificate holders, and additional measures including increased and periodic unannounced audits.

The controversy comes at a sensitive time for Rainforest Alliance, which this summer is planning to launch a new certification standard, completing the integration of Rainforest Alliance and UTZ, which merged under the Rainforest Alliance brand two years ago.

Caption: Mighty Earth’s Cocoa Accountability Map covers nearly 5,000 co-ops in Côte d’Ivoire. (Credit: Mighty Earth)


In an interview with Ethical Corporation last October, ahead of the Washington Post report, Han de Groot readily agreed the limits of certification in addressing the many causes of deforestation, but said: “We are reimagining certification and trying to take it to a higher level.”

Under the new system there will be increased investment in oversight and training for auditors, and the use of new technology, like satellite imagery and geospatial analysis, to identify risk areas for deforestation.

Farmers will be given access to the data they need to improve their practices, while a new Chain of Custody Standard will encourage companies to invest in more sustainable production.

A big challenge was lack of clarity over where agroforestry is permitted, with Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana yet to issue redrawn maps

One aim of the new “beyond certification” approach in cocoa is to replicate success Rainforest Alliance had in reducing deforestation in the Maya Biosphere Reserve in Guatemala, where the introduction of community-based forestry and harvesting of non-timber products led to lower deforestation rates than in areas that were supposedly completely protected.

De Groot said RA has been working with cocoa farming co-operatives in the western Ghana to introduce agroforestry methods, but one big challenge was lack of clarity over where agroforestry is permitted, with the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana yet to issue redrawn maps.

But Higonnet is also critical of Rainforest Alliance’s failure to pay premiums for cocoa that are high enough to lift cocoa farmers out of extreme poverty, something she said contributes to the high incidence of child labour. A report last year by Tulane University and the Walk Free Foundation found 2.1 million children between ages five and 17 working in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, almost all of them doing hazardous work.

Chocolate companies and ministers from Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire reach agreement to address deforestation at a 2017 meeting in London hosted by Prince Charles. (Credit:  Ian Jones Photography)

According to Lumina, cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire are earning $1.31 per day, well below the UN’s $1.90 definition of extreme poverty, with a quarter of that coming from non-cocoa sources. Certification by Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade lift incomes, but only marginally. Although Rainforest Alliance and UTZ don’t publish premiums, Lumina estimated that farmers whose cocoa was certified by those schemes earn on average $1.40 a day in the current season, while farmers certified by Fairtrade, which pays a global fixed premium for cocoa of $240 per metric ton, earn $1.54 a day.

From October, farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana will get a Living Income Differential of $400 per tonne that will see Fairtrade-certified famers rise above the poverty line to $1.98, but leave Rainforest Alliance-certified famers below the line at $1.83, only eight cents more than farmers earning no premium at all, according to Lumina's calculations.

Mighty Earth and other campaigners are pushing for Rainforest Alliance to join Fairtrade in setting a global cocoa premium, saying this would be “hugely helpful” in emboldening other cocoa-producing countries such as Cameroon, Nigeria, Ecuador, Peru, and Costa Rica, which are fearful of losing business if they follow the lead of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana in setting higher cocoa prices.

Without a global floor price for cocoa, a lot of what they are getting ready to announce is just greenwash

While Fairtrade has a global cocoa floor price, it certifies less than 5% of the world’s cocoa supply. Rainforest Alliance, however, certifies 32% of the world’s cocoa, Higonnet says, “As they [Rainforest Alliance] go, so does the entire cocoa industry.”

Higgonet said that last month NGOs cancelled a meeting they had called with Rainforest Alliance after it refused to meet with one of the group, Terry Collingsworth, executive director of IRAdvocates, which has filed lawsuits against Nestlé and Cargill alleging use of child labour in cocoa plantations in Mali and Côte d’Ivoire.

Asked in an email about the cancelled meeting, a Rainforest Alliance spokesperson said: "It was not possible to come to an agreement with all NGOs involved in the proposed meetings in order to ensure a collaborative and open space for discussion at that time however we remain hopeful that we will hold a broad NGO meeting in the short term."

Asked about Mighty Earth’s demand for Rainforest Alliance to set a global floor price for cocoa, De Groot said: “We are looking at our position regarding a sustainability differential to cocoa farmers [which would be applied globally] and will be sharing our position in the coming months before the launch of the new standard.” 

Higonnet said the acid test of Rainforest Alliance’s new approach would be its willingness to lift cocoa farmers’ incomes. “Without a global floor price [for cocoa] a lot of what they are getting ready to announce is just greenwash. They might be nice, but if at the core you aren’t paying people a price where they can earn a living income then you are certifying quasi-modern slavery, and that is not OK.”

Main picture credit: Thierry Gouegnon/Reuters
IDH  Cocoa & Forests Initiative  Mighty Earth  Lumina Intelligence 

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