Can agroforestry truly reduce deforestation? Does it increase farmer incomes? According to recent research, the answers to these questions are not as straightforward as commonly thought.
Over the past few decades, natural forests have been substantially cleared in West Africa. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana respectively 25% and 8% of primary forest was lost between 2002 and 2019, with a significant portion of deforestation due to expansion of cocoa farming.
Drivers of deforestation include changes in productivity levels and poverty that many smallholder cocoa farmers experience.
To fight deforestation and raise farmer incomes, the cocoa sector increasingly promotes agroforestry.
Under the Cocoa & Forests Initiative, more than 10 million trees have been distributed by cocoa and chocolate companies for planting on farms since 2018.
Challenges remain in the promotion and adoption of agroforestry practices. Agroforestry can be defined as a land use system where at least two crops are grown: a perennial and a food crop, or a tree crop or plant used to feed livestock.
Agroforestry designs often lack focus on farmers’ needs and market access for non-cocoa products that could generate alternative incomes.
It is clear that in order to be successful with agroforestry, a thoughtful design and deliberate implementation focused on reducing deforestation and increasing incomes is required.
In a recent World Cocoa Foundation webinar, experts discussed the environmental and economic challenges that the sector is facing and how to overcome them through the promotion of agroforestry.
Arild Angelsen, from the School of Economics and Business at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), presented his findings on the connection between the production of more cocoa on less land and deforestation, focusing specifically on agroforestry.
Angelsen shared two contrasting theoretical perspectives that have dominated the dialogue on agroforestry.
The first perspective – often associated with the Green Revolution – argues that when land is becoming more productive, no additional land is required, thus reducing the likelihood of deforestation.
The second perspective – based on basic economic theories – claims that higher productivity raises the profitability of crops, which incentivizes further expansion into new land.
For Angelsen, understanding the theoretical approaches is an important first step, followed by understanding the factors that underlie each approach so that agroforestry systems can be designed to deliver the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.
Angelsen argued that a series of conditioning factors can either increase deforestation or reduce it. For instance, plenty of natural forests, immigrant mobile labor, global cocoa demand and cost-saving technology have generally accelerated deforestation in West Africa.
Today, different contexts and technologies have different deforestation outcomes. When farms are labor or capital constrained, the likelihood of expansion into forests is lower.
More cocoa production followed by lower prices could also reduce farmers’ incentive to expand agricultural land. This happens, for instance, when agricultural technologies and innovations are adopted at a larger scale.
But more cocoa does not always translate into lower prices. For instance, when farmers sell their products in the global market, prices could remain relatively high in spite of increased production if farmers have a small market share and thus cannot impact on global prices. In this case, there may be new incentives to expand.
In a nutshell, the forest outcome rests on the cocoa intensification strategy adopted: while market-driven intensification is more likely to continue deforestation, technology-driven intensification is expected to limit expansion.
The key takeaway of Angelsen’s research is: “do not always assume a positive outcome”. Rather, the answer is to understand the conditioning factors and combine different interventions that can maximize both forest conservation and farmer livelihoods while minimizing the negative impacts.
But what may constitute an optimal agroforestry design to increase income? To address this question, Olivier Deheuvels, researcher at CIRAD, compared three common combinations of planting density and diversity of species in the Dominican Republic.
He found that the design leading to greatest income was one that combined three to seven species and a total of 100 to 400 trees on 1,000 m2 plots.
This scenario ensured relatively high returns from the sale of cocoa, alternative incomes from other products, and provided food for the farmer.
Instead, in higher density and diversity systems, the amount of labor and costs required was too high and incomes remained low.
As cocoa incomes are highly variable across seasons, Deheuvels said that there is a need to further consider income distribution beyond the cocoa harvesting season.
The strategy should be to maximize income during the rest of the year with appropriate plants.
For Deheuvels, “the question may not be to generate a higher income, but to guarantee a safer income first.”
To him, improving agroforestry designs towards the right distribution and combination of species as well as promoting access to markets is essential.
Also, land availability and security as well as soil fertility should be part of the debate when determining how best to promote agroforestry that can lead to greater incomes.
Both researchers emphasized that careful planning to meet farmers’ needs and interests is necessary when designing agroforestry systems that will simultaneously reduce deforestation and increase incomes.
This requires a good understanding of production, farming dynamics, economics, and the market.
They revealed that under certain conditions agroforestry can incentivize forest clearing, which is why it should be promoted only when farmer characteristics, technology, market, and land tenure situations are favorable.
By Marta Massera