cocoa forest in ghana



report looking at the environmental risks of cocoa expansion in west Africa wants to help policymakers and organisations make better decisions by considering the context of their policy to their geography. In other words, environmental strategy has no ‘one size fits all’.

  • Land sparing and land sharing is promoted in cocoa sustainability initiatives.
  • Highly suitable areas for cocoa are important for biodiversity and ecosystem services.
  • Patterns of risks vary throughout the region and demand context-specific responses.
  • Spatial analysis can help prioritise and plan for sustainable cocoa development.

More about the researchers; MariekeSassenabArnoutvan SoesbergenbcAndrew P.ArnellbEmmaScottd

 Figure 1. study area showing cocoa suitability based on Schroth et al. (2016) and location of some key protected areas in Liberia, Cˆote d′Ivoire and Ghana (UNEP-WCMC and IUCN, 2019). Image Source.

Deforestation Highlights

  • Zero-deforestation initiatives generally prohibit deforestation in High Carbon Stock (HCS) or High Conservation Value (HCV) areas.
  • We should continue to support recent commitments and efforts to end cocoa-driven deforestation (Carodenuto, 2019); sustainable intensification has been advocated by the cocoa industry as a “land-sparing” approach.
  • Based on deforestation between 2010 and 2017, the QUICKLUC land use change model projects a mean tree cover loss to 2050 of 5% within the areas currently suitable for cocoa production. But in some countries, future tree cover loss is expected to be much higher, e.g., Sierra Leone (18%), Guinea (18%) and Ghana (10%).
  • The projected conversions from forest to full sun cocoa lead to de­creases in the bundle of realised ecosystem services. Carbon sequestration rates will be lower in cocoa than under primary forest cover. Water quantity is projected to increase in most areas.

Relationship to Yields

Cocoa is widely distributed and a significant cash earner in cocoa-producing regions. But cocoa yields are low (400–500 kg/ha), and farmers are often unable to rejuvenate their plantations and often lack the means to do so. This leads to a new cycle of forest clearing as farmers initiate a new plantation under a (thinned) forest canopy.

Sustainable Intensification

Historical trends for intensification, driven by increasing demand for cocoa and supported by new sun-tolerant hybrids, have led to a gradual decrease in the use of shading.

Intensive full-sun cocoa farming systems require more inputs like fertilisers, and trees provide farmers with many benefits such as timber, fruits, fuelwood and other benefits. This increases their resilience to fluctuating cocoa prices and climate change shocks.

The cocoa industry has recently advocated sustainable intensification to end cocoa-driven deforestation, such as with the Cocoa Forest Initiative (CFI). It is a land-sparing approach to help diversify farmers’ incomes and increase their resilience. 

It also aligns with national strategies (REDD+) for forest and biodiversity conservation. On the other hand, agroforestry is increasingly being promoted as a land-sharing approach. Some certification schemes (Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly) already include sustainability criteria like shade.

Considering Context

The future of cocoa sustainability may depend on contexts, such as the location of current and potential future cocoa production in relation to remaining forests. Cameroon and Liberia, for example, still have large forest areas suitable for cocoa.  

Summary on Context

  • In order to inform efforts to prevent further cocoa-driven deforestation in the West African cocoa zone, the researchers mapped areas that are important for biodiversity and ecosystem services (carbon, water, forest products) and potentially most at risk from further cocoa expansion based on climatic suitability, a continuation of past deforestation trends and the potential role of cocoa therein.
  • In Ghana and Côte d′Ivoire, remaining forests should be better protected, degraded forests should be restored, and agroforestry systems should be supported where possible to maintain or enhance biodiversity and ecosystem services provision in cocoa landscapes.
  • In countries with large areas of remaining forests (e.g., Liberia and Cameroon) that are highly suitable for cocoa and where cocoa is expanding, the approach used in this study can help identify areas with the highest biodiversity and ecosystem services values and inform the planning of future cocoa development to maximise cocoa system productivity potential, biodiversity and ecosystem services from the national to local scale.
  • Adaptation strategies are required to avoid the loss but also improve biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services across the region.
  • These efforts often seek to align with national REDD+ strategies and national policies on forest and biodiversity conservation (GFC, 2016; Republic of Cˆote d′Ivoire, 2017).
  • National-level spatial analysis showing where the expansion of cocoa is most probable and where risks to forests, biodiversity and ecosystem services are highest can inform the prioritisation of action.
  • Similarly, a better understanding of the distribution of biodiversity and ecosystem services within existing cocoa growing areas can help target different strategies such as sustainable intensification, agroforestry or other interventions.
  • The researchers used spatial analysis and modelling tools to link biodiversity and ecosystem services measures to a potential land use change. 
  • The areas of the highest significance for biodiversity in the cocoa belt (Fig. 2b) are concentrated in the forested areas of Cameroon and Liberia, with more scattered patches in Côte d′Ivoire, Ghana and Nigeria (Fig S1).
  • Areas with a high risk to biodiversity from cocoa-driven deforestation (Fig. 3b, dark blue) are found in forest patches in the south of Ghana and west of Côte d′Ivoire (e.g., the Taï forest).

Context-Aware Solutions

The results showcase the need for context-specific action and prioritising action. We found two broad types of risk which call for different strategies to help maintain forests, biodiversity and ecosystem services in the cocoa-producing region of West Africa.


  • In traditional producer countries such as Ghana and Côte d′Ivoire, many suitable areas have already been converted.
  • Conservation and restoration should be a major focus to maintain ecosystem services provision in these areas. In existing cocoa growing areas, tree cover should be maintained or increased where possible, including through agroforestry. Cocoa agroforestry can help maintain sig­ significant biodiversity.


  • In areas where land suitable for cocoa overlaps significantly with high biodiversity values (i.e., Liberia and Cameroon, see Fig. 3b), there is a need for systematic land use planning to limit the potential impacts of cocoa development on forests and other areas of high conservation value.
  • In Cameroon’s ‘non-permanent forest domain’ some expansion into remaining unprotected forests (e.g., in Cameroon’s “non-permanent forest domain”) may be unavoidable, so a land-efficient method is required.

Featured Image Source: Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) programme | Flickr

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