The Ivory Coast: A case study on climate change and the chocolate we eat

The Ivory Coast has featured prominently in this year’s commodity news with reports of cocoa shipments falling far below levels of previous years. This week, Reuters reported that cocoa port arrivals dropped a dramatic 16% year-on-year since the start of the season last October. A series of recent reports have linked unseasonably dry weather to the sharp decline in grindings and exports. In particular, the Harmattan winds that blow from the Sahara southward across much of West Africa have been unforgiving to this season’s harvest. Industry expectations are for the trend to continue into the next growing season mainly due to low rainfall. Not only have volumes been affected, but quality as well with smaller average bean size and high acidity being reported. As a consequence, exporters have turned away as much as half of arriving volumes. The socioeconomic impact of this damage on the country’s smallholder producers has been extensive.

The Ivorian case is emblematic of supply-side challenges being faced worldwide by the cocoa industry. As the world’s largest producer, what happens in the Ivory Coast will have repercussions felt by chocolate consumers everywhere. This article reviews some of the proximate causes as well as the fundamental driver behind the crisis.

In June, a group of researchers at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture published an article examining the impact of climate change in West Africa’s cocoa belt and the results are cause for dismay. The authors predict both increased precipitation and temperature extremes during the dry season. They identify the forest-savanna transition zone to be the most vulnerable, predicting 87% and 57% drops in suitable growing areas in Nigeria and Ivory Coast, respectively, by 2050.

Relative climatic suitability (in percent) for cocoa of the West Africa cocoa belt

Relative climatic suitability (in percent) for cocoa of the West Africa cocoa belt (Source: CIAT)

Although it is difficult to draw a causal link to climate change, farmers in the Ivory Coast recently reported a mass caterpillar invasion that has affected around 17,000 hectares of growing areas. (Link: video). The extent of the damage and the potential spread of the caterpillar have yet to be fully understood.

Another effect of shifting weather has been the conversion of cocoa acreage to informal mining operations as pits are torn directly into cocoa fields to extract gold. In other cases, cocoa farmers are being drawn from parched farms to the mining regions, leaving trees abandoned.

An informal miner on a cleared plot (Source: AFP)

An informal miner on a cleared plot (Source: AFP)

Against this backdrop, ethnic tensions are simmering as thousands of Ivorian refugees return to their homes only to find the farms occupied by newcomers, often from other regions, in the wake of the country’s 2010 civil war. Many settlers include migrants from neighboring countries that have also been subject to a changing climate. The government’s efforts to adjudicate disputes through the issuance of land title have been woefully inadequate; overall, land tenure remains precarious. In such legal limbo, farmers are understandably reluctant to make needed investments in their orchards.

Displacement and the resulting resource conflicts have manifested themselves in widespread squatting across the country’s remaining protected forests. Experts estimate that the Ivory Coast has lost 80% of its forested area since 1960. Forest clearance continues largely unabated and cocoa farming is pervasive on such plots. Experts believe as much as one third of the country’s cocoa may originate from protected areas.

Burnt cocoa farm in a protected area (Source: Reuters)

Burnt cocoa farm in a protected area (Source: Reuters)

This has pitted human livelihoods against the survival of endangered species, including the pygmy hippopotamus and chimpanzees, endemic to these forests. Taking a more muscular approach, authorities forcibly evicted thousands cocoa farmers from these lands. The removal of over 50,000 people from Mont Peko National Park alone may take 10,000 tons of cocoa off the market in short order and is likely to further inflame tensions. Human rights groups have raised the alarm that the evictions have been linked to the illegal destruction of homes, intimidation, extortion and even murder.

Taken together, these factors paint a picture of long-term secular decline that will not be easily resolved by a year or two of plentiful rainfall. Even more concerning is that these trends are not unique to the Ivory Coast. Recent weather patterns attributed to El Niño have adversely affected production from Brazil to Indonesia. While laudable, private and public sectors efforts to combat the effects of climate change would seem to fall short given the magnitude of the problem.

One of the recommendations posed by the CIAT researchers is the adoption of agroforestry systems: “…in view of the relatively high rainfalls and short dry season in this area, the conditions for managing the projected increase in maximum temperatures through the systematic use of shade are particularly good. Cocoa could be grown here in multi-strata agroforests under a canopy of useful trees creating their own microclimate…” (Source: CIAT) Such systems are effective in buffering temperature extremes, modulating humidity, and reducing erosion caused by heavy rainfall. They are also intensive in their capture of carbon dioxide. While cocoa may be the proverbial canary in the mine, agroforestry systems, including those that produce cocoa, will undoubtedly play a role in any serious response to a changing climate.

Update – 15 Sept. 2016

Today, the Wall St. Journal published an article entitled “Cocoa Production Could Be Devastated by Climate Change, Experts Warn,” drawing attention to the potential impact of climate change on cocoa production worldwide. Genetic diversity and the development of new varieties drawn from a broader gene pool is cited as an important part of the response:

“To make cocoa crops more resilient, the industry needs a greater long-term focus on genetic diversity, which will allow plants to better withstand and adapt to changes in climate, said  Brigitte Laliberté an expert on cocoa genetic resources at Biodiversity International, a global research-for-development organization. Genetic diversity in the West African region is low, she said, and while a focus on better agricultural methods can help yields in the short term, in the long term there must be better research and funding for breeding more resilient varieties, she said.”

The lack of genetic diversity makes African cocoa inherently more vulnerable to pests and disease that can be spawned by changes in humidity and temperature vis-a-vis Latin America cocoa farms whose natural genetic pool is more diverse. This point certainly underscores the importance of avoiding monoculture around a handful of clonal selections; embracing endemic varieties; and employing agroforestry systems to enhance the species’ natural resilience.

Update – 16 Sept. 2016

Outcries have mounted over the government’s handling of the Mont Peko evictions with Human Rights Watch issuing a scathing statement:

“International law protects anyone who occupies land from forced evictions that either do not provide adequate notice or do not respect the dignity and rights of those affected, regardless of whether they occupy the land legally.”

Now homeless, thousands of former squatters have been driven into neighboring villages that lack the resources to accommodate them.

Bloomberg reported today that the impending cocoa shortage is likely to worsen over the remainder of the current season and into the next. By one measure (stockpiles-to-grindings), the market is at its tightest in 30 years with cocoa butter in particularly short supply. The head of Olam International’s cocoa division (the company is the world’s 3rd largest processor) stated:

“The light crop has just been a disaster in Ivory Coast and the Indonesian crop has been much smaller than we thought… We are seeing acute shortages in Asia, acute shortages in America, acute shortages in Africa… You are not really going to catch up with that deficit until the latter part of next year. And for that, you are going to need not only good main crops, but above-normal mid-crops.”

Heading into the peak Halloween and Christmas demand period, it seems likely that the scarcity will be felt by consumers and producers alike.

 

 

Pay your cacao farmer well!

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

Cocoa beans from a Theobroma cacao tree

There is a troublesome trend in the farm world; small farmers are throwing in the towel and big farms are getting bigger.  Naturally, these massive operations have effects on the environment, food costs, human health, communities, and more.

This year we had an experience that made this trend personal.  To be honest, we’ve had an awful harvest when we didn’t expect it.   As a medium scale operation, the income that our harvests bring can be a critical element to our financial sustainability.    We want to do things right, and that costs money.

Last November when our “winter” harvest usually comes in we had a series of weather phenomenons that threw a big fat wrench into our cacao efforts.  Climate change for us, has felt very real this year.  In fact we estimate a 70% decrease in production when compared to last year.  Thankfully we have good clients and we’re diversified; for example we’ve been able to sell lumber and services to make up the difference, but what about the small farmer?  How does one who already lives marginally cope with these situations?  Does he/she give up to go work for the industrial farms?

Most Cocoa farmers, the majority of whom live in West Africa, live in poverty.  In Guatemala, where most of the cocoa is grown by cooperatives, the socio-economic situation is not bad, but its still marginal.

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For the poor farmer that eeks out an existence and is burdened with the risks of climate change and commodity prices, something has to change.  And part of that is to address the value chain and to recognize that we can pay our farmers a little bit more given all of the warmth and goodness that chocolate brings us.

Recently Izabal Agro-Forest conducted a market study for cocoa and found that a substantial increase in the commodity price for cocoa who would have almost no price effect on the consumer, which is crazy!  What the message here?: Let us pay our farmers more:

Andrew Miller (of IAF & Big Leaf) comments:

“Higher cocoa prices need not result in proportionally higher chocolate prices as cocoa represents just 5% of the retail price (see table below). Even if this percentage were to double to 10% in 2020, as projected by Euromonitor, chocolate prices could remain roughly flat.”

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Small to medium sized chocolate makers generally understand that quality and social sustainability are critical elements of supporting good quality cacao and its farmers.  We just need the industrial guys to catch on.

Pay your farmer well!

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Growing Pataxte

IAF grown Pataxte, Izabal, Guatemala

Young Pataxte tree, IAF, Izabal, Guatemala

We recently started planting Theobroma bicolor, an overlooked, and uncommon relative of cacao.   “Pataxte” as its known among the Kekchi communities near our farm, has been used by the Maya for at least 1500 years; and most likely longer.

I would say the taste is similar to cacao but less “chocolatey” with more coffee notes, more astringency and something like a sweet buttery-lemon element. It’s smell is more delicate than cacao and it has an all-white seed.

For the few people that actually use Pataxte, it may be prepared like cacao; that is fermented, dried and roasted; oddly though, I’ve found that most Mayan growers skip the fermentation step.

Apparently it has a higher fat content than Theobroma cacao, and according to my archaeologist father, was prized by the Aztecs for its foaming qualities. Which is of course, a good thing when you’re making hot chocolate 🙂

Pataxte (theobroma bicolor) pod

Pataxte (theobroma bicolor) pod

In Belize and Northern Guatemala it is referred to as Cacao Silvestre (Wild cacao) or balam-te’ (Jaguar tree in Yucateco Mayan); unlike cacao, most Pataxte seems to be directly descended from its original Mayan lineages as it was never exported or hybridized.  As a comparison, I would say that 95% of the world’s chocolate derives from genetically “improved” hybrids. (That figure by the way, is not to be quoted, it’s just a semi-educated guess)

What really intrigues me about Theobroma bicolor is that (unlike its more popular cousin Cacao), it can be grown in broad daylight without shade.  So not only can we plant it on the edges of our forests, where Cacao might whither, we can also plant in areas of low shade or simply in an open field.

We decided to plant it under our tropical cedar trees (Cedrella adorata), which lose their leaves in the dry months so totally inadequate for Theobroma cacao.  This experiment is important for us because, if successful, all of a sudden our “plantable” areas are greatly increased.

Dwight Carter, from Frutas del Mundo, whom kindly supplied us the seedlings, suggested that with proper pruning the Pataxte could actually function as the shade-giving agent for a cacao plantation.  If successful, (and I think it could be given its height and broad leaves), growers could potentially have an all-theobroma plantation, which is fun.   I would love to hear if anyone has done this by the way!

Interestingly, the sacred maya book “Popol Vuh” mentions it as one of the foods of Maya paradise: “This will be our food: maize, pepper seeds, beans, cacáo & pataxte…

Theobroma bicolor

Theobroma bicolor

 

 

 

 

The Final Warning Bell

In Brazil deforestation repesents 70% of the country’s carbon emissions (photo courtesy of the WWF)

The final warning bell has been rung by a UN Climate Change report.  The ongoing destruction of the remaining tropical rain forests and the advance of the pine beetle into the extreme north has contributed to 1/5th of the carbon being delivered into our precious atmosphere, much more than all the motorized vehicles, ships and factories on the planet.  Agriculture is the main polluter and negative factor in this equation.  Here in Guatemala, just to mention an example, at certain times of the year, the burning of the cane fields on the Pacific coast, is enough to darken the sky and cause an ash fall of choking dimensions in nearby communities.

The question is why has forestry not been able to play a more important and sustainable role in mitigating climate change?  One obvious reply is that the global public is kept in the dark by a disinterested media, passive educators and politicians looking only as far as the next vote.

But then what about reforestation companies and the forest investment companies?  Why are they not playing a greater role in the sequestration of carbon and so the salvation of our planet as we know it.  Again the answer is painful:  enormous areas covered by mono-cultures of short term tree crops for mainly pulp or biomass using species (e.g. Pine,Eucaliptus or Melina) that are most often foreign to the tropics with negative effects on the soil.  Sustainable agroforestry is one answer.  India has just passed more progressive legislation that removes many of the bureaucratic restrictions on the planting and use of new forests by farmers,that is expected to increase the forest cover there by millions of hectares.  Both investors, forestry companies and governments need to pay more attention to native forest species for lumber and food while considering the infinite possibilities of sub-canopy planting.

In addition, especially Universities should be playing an important role in environmentally correct reforestation and habitat recovery, but sadly most often their endowment funds invest in mono-cultures and doubtful short term returns, while their scientists preach another story.  It is a dysfunction that every responsible citizen and especially foresters need to urgently correct before we are obligated to send a flotilla of arks to Bangladesh, a country that lies almost entirely at sea level.

– Richard Bronson

Palm monoculture

Palm monoculture in Guatemala

Agrforestry parcel, IAF, Guatemala

 

My Hormigo Guitar

Hormigo Guitar IAF 3

My new Hormigo guitar, built by Taylor Guitars, wood (back & sides) from Izabal Agro Forest

I started playing the guitar when I was 14 years old.  When my Dad bought me my first classical guitar, a Yamaha G-230 (that I still have!) from black market guitars in San Francisco I was thrilled.  I remember looking at the mahogany back, wondering about the workmanship and incredible quality of the wood.  21 years later I commissioned my first custom-made guitar.  The idea, from the beginning was to use woods grown on our farm, initially I thought we would use some of our plantation Mahogany or Rosewood, but my Dad suggested we do something more experimental.  “Why not Hormigo?” he said.  Hormigo, Platymiscium dimorphandrum, is a rich gold and brown tropical hardwood, what was intriguing about his idea however is that in Guatemala it is considered the finest tonewood for marimbas.  Naturally then, we thought it would make a good guitar.

With the decision made, we had a piece cut with our Hudson bandsaw, and sent it over to my friend Chris Cosgrove, wood buyer for Taylor guitars in California.  I gave them the specifications and a few weeks later we received this beauty in the mail.    The tone is beautiful and rich, and I’ll let the images speak to the quality of the finish.

For more information about our tonewood plantation please visit: izabalagroforest.com

Hormigo Guitar IAF 1

Hormigo body and sides, mahogany neck, spruce soundboard, with Cocobolo inlay

Hormigo Guitar IAF 2

Using the sapwood adds to the natural beauty of the Hormigo grain.

Hormigo Guitar IAF 4

The first of many instruments to be made from lumber sustainably grown lumber at Izabal Agro-Forest

Hormigo Guitar IAF 5

Hormigo grain, Platymiscium spp.

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The front of the guitar was made from Norther Spruce, however the inlay around the sound hole was made from Cocobolo

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Thank you to all the good folks over at Taylor guitars.

Hormigo-made marimba

Standard forestry vs agroforestry

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Cacao in Cocobolo grove: Izabal Agro-Forest

Over the years I’ve had many conversations about the benefits and so-called disadvantages of agro-forestry, and I’ve found that people with a forestry pedigree tend to be skeptical.  The question always comes down to whether or not there is a financial or biological burden when double cropping land.  It’s understandable, as a forester you probably want to prioritize tree silviculture, so the idea that you may have to adjust your method so that the other crop coexist in a healthy way is a no-go for some managers.  To be clear, there are sacrifices.  In a monoculture your management is 100% oriented around the success of one species, there are no other considerations.  For example, you can plant your trees as intensively as possible, (1100+ trees per hectare), personnel can focus on one set of skills, and possibly there are other considerations.

But of course I see this from a different perspective, first and foremost I see agro-forestry in terms of risk mitigation.

Timber, agriculture, cacao, livestock, apples, papayas, they all have risks; the most common are disease, fire, natural disaster and market volatility, a farmers life is full of ups and downs.  Trust me I know.  But rarely do these risks affect crops in the same way, whereas fire may wipe out a forest floor crop like cacao, only a concentrated extremely intense fire could kill a hardwood tree.  Similarly, diseases, common in fruits and vegetables rarely affect trees in the same way, particularly hardwoods.  Market prices for any commodity will see good years and bad, but rarely across the whole spectrum.  And  unlike fruit crops, you don’t necessarily have to harvest your timber trees if there is a market lull, you can wait the bad prices out (and in the meantime they continue to grow!).  It has been been said before, as long as the sun shines and rain falls, trees grow.

The biggest disadvantage with timber investment is the long, (sometimes very long) wait it takes a tree to grow to a good, harvestable size.  For tropical hardwoods the time-frame is usually estimated between 20 and 30 years, depending on the species of course.  But therein also lies the beauty of the symbiotic relationship that a forest floor crop (like cacao or coffee) and a longterm tree crop:  One provides you the cash-flow to continue operations and receive income, the other functions as the life-jacket that provides a low-risk and historically reliable investment.

There are other factors as well of course:  A poly-culture will look and function more like a natural forest than a standard monoculture.    Agro-forestry is more likely to provide consistent, long-term, employment to community members, there are at least two streams of revenue and I should also mention that in a world where high-quality land capable of producing food is extremely limited, it’s just the right thing to do!

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Mahogany & cacaogrove on my farm, Izabal Agro-Forest

Hardwood trees with cacao understory - izabalagroforest.com

Hardwood trees with cacao understory – izabalagroforest.com

An old story

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Embera girls holding cacao pods

Over the last few months I’ve heard a lot of hype about where the Cacao market is heading.  Huge investments are being raised in response to rising demand.  And its true the outlook is good, especially considering the growing premium market and untapped Asian markets that have barely begun consuming chocolate.  60% of the world is Asian so, there’s reason to be optimistic.  But…  I’m seeing a tendency toward the mistakes of the past.

Although Cacao is originally from the Amazon basin, it was most famously consumed by the Mayans in Southern Mexico, and Central America.  Today most of it is grown in Western Africa and consumed in the North America and Europe.  These are huge mono-cultures stretching across thousands of kilometers.  Countries like Ghana and Madagascar seem to be providing a steady supply of good quality fruit, but others have struggled and the cacao industry is rife with problems, political and biological.  Once again we’re seeing this industrial tendency to do things as big and as cheap as possible, leveraging economies of scale to the bitter end.

Broadly speaking, mono-cultures by their very nature are more susceptible to disease and insect attacks, which makes organic or low impact agriculture very very difficult.  Throughout cacao’s industrial history, we’ve seen huge single year drops in production due to out of control diseases.  They also tend to be one dimensional in that if you have a biological disaster or the market tanks, that’s it, your financial model breaks. Its one of the many reasons I’ve been a proponent of agroforestry for so long, I just can’t wait until we see it at an impact scale.

I’ve seen proposals for industrial projects throughout Latin America and its really just a repeat of the past, basically the attitude is: let’s take the latest, hottest commodity and plant it to the end of the horizon.  When I see these, I can’t help but wonder what kind of technical advice these proposals are based on?  Why aren’t these proposals more diversified?  What are the environmental and social impacts?

A productive cacao tree is sensitive, requires consistent phytosanitation and silviculture; basically it is generally susceptible to biological risk.  In my opinion an industrial cacao plantation should not exceed 200 hectares and larger projects would do well to geographically separate farms.   There’s a reason most of the world’s cacao is grown by small scale farmers, its never worked as an industrial crop.  Cacao fund managers should carefully assess management teams and conduct thorough feasibility studies, or they might see an old story repeat itself.   Don’t get me wrong, I think cacao is wonderful and has huge upside, I’m actually planting a lot of it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the accepted (institutional) model can be improved.

(Click images for a higher resolution view)

My farm's tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

My farm’s tri-level approach to cacao cultivation

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A shoot grafted with heirloom stock in our nursery

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Young Mahogany and cacao mixed species stand

Diseased Cacao tree, location not cited

Ah monoculture…

Cacao supply by country