Low yields, high emissions and writings on walls: Time for a major shift in cocoa management in Southern Cameroon?

Steps to increase cocoa yields in Southern Cameroon have often led to the encroachment of cocoa plantations into forested areas, with the alarming risk of deforestation and increased carbon emissions. Disturbingly, studies show that such expansion does not necessarily lead to increased profitability for farmers. In a study published in Agroforestry Systems, Magne et al assert that for cocoa-based agroforestry systems in Southern Cameroon to provide good yields and high carbon stocks a major shift in current tree management practices is required. Farmers have to learn to spare not just the trees that offer commercial or social-cultural advantages but also those offering overall benefits to agroforestry system efficiency —both for carbon and cocoa yield.

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A traditional cocoa farm

In Southern Cameroon, cocoa is managed in complex agroforestry systems (AFS) that include annual crops, fruit and timber trees, and remnant forest trees. These systems are the result of local tree resources management practices adapting to changing socio-economic needs and opportunities. Although cocoa is an importantsource of income, a closer look reveals that traditional AFS are not generally profitable.The senescence of cocoa farms, low rates of fertilizer and herbicide use, and diseases all lead to low yields. Disease remains a major challenge. Plantations are managed with family labour and minimal maintenance. More than half of the cocoa farms are older than 30 years and seeds come from plots established during colonial times in the last century.

In the early 1990s, due to the economic crisis that affected the cocoa sector, many farms were abandoned or set aside with minimum management. Only recently have international price increases and political instability in Ivory Coast led to a renewed interest for cocoa production in Cameroon. To boost national production, the government supports system intensification, along with the establishment of new farms. Traditionally cocoa farms expanded into forests causing concerns about deforestation and associated carbon emissions, in particular because Cameroon, as a REDD+ country, is committing to a reduction of its land-based carbon emissions. In general, policies focus on the improvement of livelihoods and economic returns and place little emphasis on environmental aspects, including the reduction of carbon emissions.

This study set out to determine the implications of cocoa intensification on carbon emissions in Cameroon by evaluating the profitability of various cocoa farm models and analyzing the relationship between cocoa yield, income, and carbon stored in traditional cocoa agroforests. Surveys were conducted in 49 cocoa farms along a gradient of population density, forest cover and market access, and combined with data on carbon stock and trees species inventories. It was found that traditional cocoa agroforests are managed under high shade and presented high carbon stock levels. Intensified systems were more profitable, with up to 50% cocoa yield increase, but with less tree shade. Structural and productive parameters of the system showed a high variability and it was not possible to assess a clear relationship between carbon stock, yield and incomes to clearly delineate tradeoffs.

The study shows that cocoa agroforests in southern Cameroon are still managed in a very traditional way characterized by intensive use of family labor, low yields and profitability, high shade/high carbon stock levels, little attention to the quality of associated tree species and planting material, no use of fertilizers and irregular use of pesticides. For these systems to provide both good yields and high carbon stocks would require a major shift in current tree management practices to include carbon storage as a service acknowledged by farmers. Farmers would have to undergo an intense learning process to learn to spare standing tree species not only on the basis of commercial and socio-cultural considerations but also on their agro-ecological contribution to system efficiency, both for carbon and cocoa yield.

Under persistent poverty conditions and with no major intervention to support inputs purchase, intensification pathways should focus on good practices such as shade management, quality of associated trees, and use of improved planting materials.Where financial resources are scarce, only good management practices may help to increase yield and profitability of cocoa farms without fertilizers—and maintain a high level of carbon stock.

Other recommendations from the study:

  • Conduct assessments of ecological and functional roles of various tree species to promote the selection of useful species.
  • Provide tree planting material to farmers.
  • Estimate costs for implementing and managing carbon credit payment schemes.
  • Put in place incentives to encourage farmers to preserve the environment. These include fertilizer and agricultural equipment subsidies and infrastructure development at the village level.

Read the full publication here.

Magne AN, Ewane NN, Yemefack M, Robiglio V. 2014. Profitability and implications of cocoa intensification on carbon emissions in Southern Cameroon Agroforestry Systems (online first), 10p

Improving smallholder production systems, markets, productivity, sustainability and incomes is a key focus of the CGIAR’s Collaborative Research Project 6 on Trees, Forests and Agroforestry—of which the World Agroforestry Centre is a key partner.


Rebecca Selvarajah

Rebecca is a science writer, manager of publishing projects, trainer in science writing, and novelist — working partly from Nairobi, Kenya and partly from Morwell, Australia. With over 15 years of experience in writing, advertising/marketing, publishing and social media, she takes on varied assignments, travelling, if needed, to conduct relevant research and interviews. Originally from Sri Lanka, Rebecca holds a BA honours in Psychology, with minors in Gender Studies and Sociology. Email Rebecca on r.selvarajah@cgiar.org

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