Sometimes life takes us through thought-provoking coincidences. At the World Cocoa Foundation, the onset of the COVID-19 crisis corresponded with long-planned work on the first Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) company reports. CFI is the cocoa sector’s landmark agreement to end deforestation and restore forests areas in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the world’s top cocoa producing countries.

As we were coordinating with the 35 companies involved in CFI, it became more and more important to ensure that all were safe as the outbreak was ramping up for our members located across the world, from Milan to Abidjan to San Francisco. Some had trouble accessing data from their newly established home offices, others shared their plans for indoor chocolate Easter egg hunts, and all were exploring strategies to help cocoa farmers at the base of the supply chain. In the end, companies successfully published their reports in a timely manner despite these difficulties.

Many of us intuitively felt at that time that there was a connection between our work on CFI and global health, including the increasing prevalence of pandemics. We were onto something according to Dr. Aaron Bernstein, director of Harvard University's Center of Climate, Health and the Global Environment: “Many of the root causes of climate change also increase the risk of pandemics. Deforestation, which occurs mostly for agricultural purposes, is the largest cause of habitat loss worldwide. Loss of habitat forces animals to migrate and potentially contact other animals or people and share germs.” A recent BBC News report also recently analyzed this link between habitat loss and disease outbreaks.

So, if forest loss is part of the problem and can be linked to pandemics, how are we tackling this issue in the cocoa sector? In a nutshell, cocoa-related deforestation mostly happens in West Africa, and is linked to poverty: smallholder farmers want to earn more money and are tempted to cut down forests to plant cocoa. This has resulted in devastating deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.  Moreover, forest loss is exacerbating the impact of climate change: increasing drought, pests and diseases and decreasing agriculture productivity. This is being felt in rural areas. “For us cocoa farmers, our problem is climate change,” observed Yao Ahou, an Ivorian cocoa farmer. “When we expect the rains, it is the sun that comes up, and when the sun is expected, it is the rains that come. That really confuses us, especially the cocoa trees that need the rain to produce.” 

The only way to turn the situation around is to better protect forest areas, promote climate resilience, while also improving farmers’ livelihoods, for instance by teaching them how to grow more cocoa on less land and by promoting agroforestry. CFI company reports show that more and more farmers are being trained in sustainable agricultural practices, including those that are climate-smart and more and more trees are being planted for agroforestry systems and reforestation.

Indeed, cocoa is a shade-loving tree and can be grown in agroforestry systems, increasing canopy cover and absorbing carbon. In Latin America, cocoa, a native plant of the Amazon, is planted as part of agroforestry systems to restore lands degraded by cattle or timber exploitation. These biological corridors provide new homes for native wildlife (see examples in Colombia and in the Brazilian Amazon), therefore restoring habitat for various species. When done right, cocoa can be part of the solution to combat climate change, habitat loss, and the threats to human health that are a result of those issues. We are working with companies, governments and technical experts to identify innovative solutions to make the cocoa sector and the millions of farmers who are dependent on their cocoa farm more climate resilient.

Together, by staying home, washing our hands and listening to public health experts, we can flatten the curve of the coronavirus outbreak for now. Then, hopefully, medical research will allow us to put an end to this tragic crisis. As we rebuild our lives and think about the future, we need to prioritize our collective work on fighting deforestation and climate change. I will leave the last word to  Viveca Morris, executive director of Law, Ethics & Animals Program at Yale Law School: “To prevent future outbreaks like COVID-19 or worse, we have to treat planetary, animal and human health as inseparable.


The author is Director of Environment at the World Cocoa Foundation.

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