New study finds our chocolate is associated with deforestation in West Africa

Researchers have analysed cocoa farms in West Africa, finding that Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana could be using up to 40% more land for cocoa than official estimates.

Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the largest producers of cocoa in the world, and the two countries account for two-thirds of production. But despite that, without widespread mapping, it’s difficult to measure the true extent of cocoa plantations in area.

“For the first time we have maps that actually show where cocoa really grows. It points towards a strong link between the deforestation that we’ve been observing in West Africa, and cocoa,” one of the team, University of Queensland agroforestry researcher Dr Wilma Blaser-Hart told Cosmos Science.

“There has been a lot of speculation about this, but I think having maps that show how much cocoa was actually growing in protected areas – it’s quite confronting.”

The research has been published in Nature Food.

The researchers took a comprehensive approach to mapping the area, using 100,000 ‘polygons’ or GPS-mapped cocoa plantations, to train an AI model. Then they used the model to map what the AI had agreed was cocoa farm on larger satellite imagery.

Finally, they then verified their results by heading back to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire and doing more mapping on the ground.

Based on these maps, the researchers suggest that cocoa cultivation may be an underlying driver to more than 37% of forest loss in protected areas in Côte d’Ivoire and 13% in Ghana.

However, they stress that they can only look at what is there now, and they can’t confirm that there was originally forest in all of these areas.

The reason for this deforestation is that the most fertile soil comes from areas which were recently forests. But as more and more farmers migrate to the area as part of a ‘cocoa frontier’ more and more forested land is lost.

Finally, in what Blaser-Hart calls a ‘boom-and-bust cycle’, over time the soil becomes less useful, the plantations age and pasture diseases cause the plots to be abandoned.

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However, she explains that you can stop these boom-and-bust cycles by incorporating an ‘agroforestry’ approach where you use the other species of trees to create a larger ecosystem on the farm.

Just by planting other trees, “you have better nutrient cycling, the trees provide shade and they can buffer extreme temperatures, relative humidity, and then they can also help to reduce disease loads,” says Blaser-Hart.

For those who want to support more sustainable chocolate, Blaser-Hart recommends being aware that many chocolates are coming from these areas, and not just to go for the cheapest chocolate on the shelf.

“I think being more aware and making active choices of the chocolate bars that you choose can help because these are also signals that industry will respond to,” she adds.

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