Biodiversity wins on cocoa farms with diverse trees and forested landscapes

Cocoa is grown in some of the most biodiverse regions of the planet, making cocoa farmers and supply chains important environmental stewards.

Although World Cocoa Foundation members have taken significant steps to increase the environmental sustainability of their cocoa supply through Cocoa & Forests Initiative commitments, biodiversity conservation isn’t yet incorporated explicitly into the zero-deforestation and agroforestry commitments.

The science about biodiversity conservation can be difficult to access and interpret, so the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute synthesized data from around the globe in a new study to provide concrete guidance about how cocoa agriculture interacts with biodiversity.

The study found that cocoa agroforestry with 30-50% shade cover supports high biodiversity, but that forest specialists are lost from cocoa landscapes with less than 40% forest cover.

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The findings emphasize:

  1. the need to focus zero deforestation efforts on landscapes that still have substantial forest cover, and
  2. the need to invest in or conserve agroforestry systems with multiple tree species and intermediate levels of shade.
Figure 1

While biodiversity includes all forms of life, the new research focused specifically on birds. Compared with other animals, birds are easy to observe and respond strongly to management of cocoa farms. This makes birds useful biodiversity indicators in cocoa agriculture.

The study found that farms with less than 30% shade suffered a nearly four-fold decline in bird diversity compared with nearby forests (Figure 1).

In contrast, cocoa farms with intermediate or high levels of shade retained similar bird diversity to forest, and diversity increased with the number of tree species on the farm. 

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These findings show the importance of managing cocoa farms as agroforestry systems with multiple tree species and a distinct layer of vegetation.

Figure 2

By separating birds into different groups, this study also found that certain species, including many native species found nowhere else on the planet, are lost from even the most rustic cocoa agroforests (Figure 2). These species depend on forest rather than trees mixed into a cocoa farm.

These forest dependent species, including birds that primarily eat fruits and insects, can even be lost from the forest if forest cover falls below a critical threshold.

While research is still needed to define optimal configurations of forest for these sensitive species, the new study suggests these birds are lost when forest cover falls below 40-74% of a 1-2 kilometer radius around a cocoa farm. 

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Cocoa industry commitments to zero-deforestation can therefore maximize their biodiversity impact by focusing on landscapes that retain at least 40% forest.

The new Smithsonian research ultimately reveals two complimentary strategies for integrating biodiversity conservation into cocoa sustainability initiatives.

First, it shows that zero-deforestation commitments are critical to conserve forest-dependent species, especially in highly forested landscapes.

Meeting zero-deforestation commitments should continue to be a priority for all participants in cocoa supply chains.

The second strategy is protecting and implementing agroforestry systems that maintain at least 30% shade cover from a diversity of tree species. This strategy conserves different species than zero-deforestation, including declining migratory birds and birds that primarily eat seeds and nectar (Figure 2).

For these species, cocoa agroforests with intermediate shade actually support greater diversity than nearby forest!

While there is no minimum number of trees that conserve birds in cocoa agroforestry systems, the Smithsonian recommends that cocoa agroforestry include around ten tree species per farm in order to actively conserve biodiversity.

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Despite renewed interest in cocoa agroforestry, efforts to maximize cocoa yields often lead to the reduction or elimination of shade trees on cocoa farms.

But this study points out that a shade cover of 30-40% has little effect on cocoa yields in many regions (case 1case 2case 3), although careful planning and configuration of the agroforestry system may be required (case 4case 5).

These agroforestry systems also provide greater climate resilience and environmental services than low shade cocoa (case 6, case 7).

As WCF members and the Cocoa & Forests Initiative work towards a more sustainable cocoa sector, biodiversity conservation can be incorporated by implementing mixed-shade agroforestry and protecting highly forested landscapes.

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