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A Back to the Future Earth Day

Dr. Rebecca Ashley Asare, Ph.D.
Director of Programmes & Research, Nature Conservation Research Centre (NCRC)

Celebrating cocoa farming decisions of the past that benefit us today and serve as an inspiration for cocoa landscapes in the future.

There are few places on earth where I feel more relaxed, refreshed and joyful than when walking through cocoa farms in Ghana.  While many people might choose pristine beaches or alpine mountains as places of earthly repose or invigoration, I’ve always found a real haven under the canopy of cocoa trees. I love the rhythm that comes from trying to walk quickly while shuffling my feet to push through a thick layer of cocoa leaves.  The path often winds and bends, climbing hills and descending into small stream beds, all the while surrounded by sturdy cocoa trees, colorful cocoa pods in a range of yellows, oranges, reds and purples, and buttressed at times by large, old forest trees.  In some farms there are a good number of shade trees reaching up above the cocoa, while in other farms there are none. In some farms the cocoa trees are old, tired, and diseased, and in other farms the cocoa looks sharp, well maintained and productive. But apart from the environment, what I appreciate most from these walks is taking to farmers about what they are doing and why. The answers are rarely what I might anticipate, but always filled with a healthy mix of humor and humility. 

Loss of natural forests  

In Ghana, as across much of the forest zone of West Africa, cocoa farming is quite possibly the most common and important way of life in the rural areas; a critically important source of income for farm families, a part of the cultural identify, and a major driver of the national economy. But as cocoa farming has spread and grown in importance, it has also steadily come to replace natural forests, and this now presents a complex set of challenges for farmers and for the global community in light of the very real threats from climate change and those who reply upon the rainfall and other ecosystem services from the forests.  The transition has not been stark, but slow and progressive.

The oldest farmers and cocoa history books recount stories from the past of cocoa farms that resembled forests, and were still highly productive, but I had never personally experienced such a farm in Ghana until a few years ago.  This is because, following decades of research and instruction which said that shade limits cocoa’s productive potential, coupled with the arrival of chainsaws and farmer-to-farmer messaging and advice, most cocoa in Ghana has come to be grown on farms that have no shade, or low to moderate levels of shade—about 18 large shade trees per hectare is what is recommended, but not consistently achieved.

A farmer who resisted cutting down his forest

The first time I visited Atta Kwadwo’s cocoa farm in 2014, I was completely dumb-struck to find cocoa trees enclosed within a “forest” of native tree species and an environment alive with birdsong.  The cocoa trees, which were planted about 50 years ago, sit as the understory of a multi-layered cocoa agroforests that contains over 120 different timber and forest species per hectare(!). The farm itself covers more than 40 hectares in total, and in its hey-day was over 60 hectares. 

Atta Kwakwo inherited the farm from his brother, who inherited it from their father, and this portion has been largely maintained as his father left it.  According to Atta Kwadwo, his father kept so many native shade trees and allowed others to grow over the cocoa because the soils are sandy, and not having fertilizer to nourish the soil, he felt that the best way to keep the soil moist and to enhance the growth of the young cocoa trees was to leave or plant more trees to give the cocoa farm a good shade environment.  It worked.  Over the decades this high-shade cocoa agroforest has sustained two generations of the family, sent many of the children and grandchildren to school, enabled them to build houses and buy a taxi, and supported other farming endeavors, while also providing often overlooked environmental services to the surrounding farms and cocoa landscape.

A landscape program that is a beacon for the future

Today, Atta Kwakwo’s farm stands out in the vast cocoa landscape surrounding Kakum National Park as a relic from the past; a legacy of the decisions that were taken over a half century ago.  And for his father, these decisions paid off.  But the question today is what decisions will Atta Kwadwo take in the very near future.  His cocoa trees are now extremely old and need to be replanted, and every day loggers offer him money for the timber growing over the cocoa.  As a partner to the Kakum Cocoa Landscape Program, which we are implementing in an exciting collaboration with The Hershey Company, I see his cocoa agroforest as a beacon for the future, and an example of what the cocoa landscape needs to move back to. Through broad-reaching collaborations, widespread and consistent support to farmers, and the development of strong, locally driven landscape governance systems I am immensely hopeful that we can support a new wave of cocoa farmer decision-making through which cocoa can “reforest” the landscape, while supporting resilience to climate change and a rejuvenation of cocoa livelihoods. 

I believe that if we look “back to the future,” then the lessons are clear: cocoa needs the trees and the forest to survive, and Atta Kwadwo’s cocoa agroforest system can enable cocoa farmers to thrive.  The most common shade tree in Atta Kwadwo’s cocoa agroforest is called Tree of God or “Nyamedua” in the local Twi language.  A large tree with smooth, grey bark that provides year-round shade and always bring moisture and dew to the soil, even in the dry season, its name is not by chance, but due to its many blessings. 

And for me, it would be a real blessing in the future, to be able to take a long cocoa walk across the Kakum landscape under a healthy cocoa canopy that was shaded by many forest trees, and to listen to farmers talk about the many reasons that they now keep trees in their farms.