High income from cocoa could lead to deforestation in the Congo Basin

Cocoa production in rural Cameroon. Photo by Olivier Girard/CIFOR-ICRAF

Cocoa Agroforestry Improving Local Livelihoods: Sounds like a win-win for people and ecosystems, right? But A A new study An analysis of livelihood choices and deforestation impacts in the forest fringes of the Congo Basin shows that this may not necessarily be the case.

An international team of researchers studied 1035 households in the Cameroonian and Gabonese regions of the Tri-National Tija-Otsala-Minkebe Border Protected Landscape (Tridome Landscape), an important part of the vast, biodiverse and carbon-rich Congo Basin rainforest. It has been identified as an important source of climate change mitigation.

They sought to understand the livelihood strategies of local households and the impact of those choices on land use and deforestation. Cocoa agroforestry, in which cocoa crops are grown under shade as part of a diverse, complex forest system, is a common livelihood strategy in the region – and a relatively profitable one as the product is traded internationally.

Local residents also engage in various subsistence activities such as banana cultivation, hunting of wild animals, and collection of treeless forest. Some specialize in one of these activities, while others employ a diversified strategy that combines cocoa, agriculture, and forest-based activities.

The researchers found that all forms of agriculture contribute to deforestation to some extent, but the impact of marginally-higher incomes derived from cocoa production-based livelihood portfolios „is associated with six to seven times more deforestation compared to other livelihood strategies.”

Researchers measure cacao trees in a Cameroon agroforestry system. Photo by Jonas Ngouhouo-Poufoun/University College of London

They also found that households tend to follow the deforestation decisions of their neighbors. „In productive countries, social interactions at the community level play an important role,” explained Jonas Nouhou-Bouffon, lead author of the study and a senior researcher in natural resource economics at University College London.

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„The spatial spillover effect or indirect impact of cocoa production strategies as a result of social interaction on the deforestation of neighboring forests is as important as the direct impact of native deforestation,” he said.

A broader implication is that mimicry can lead to the spatial spread of deforestation, creating a self-reinforcing cycle of deforestation in cocoa and cash crop production areas. „Understanding the social interactions and environmental effects is essential to better understand deforestation in these countries and prepare effective solutions at country levels,” said Ngouhouo-Poufoun.

If growth leads households to shift their focus from small-scale farming to internationally traded commodities such as cocoa, „this could lead to a significant increase in deforestation,” the authors say. „Mimicry and the resulting spatial spillover effects make cocoa an inherently high deforestation risk crop under weak land governance regimes.”

Conversely, households that consume more of what they produce are less likely to deforest the landscape than to direct their production toward markets. Nevertheless, „when households have better access to markets, they tend to reduce the share of car consumption, which may also have a tendency to increase deforestation,” they wrote.