How the global chocolate habit wreaked havoc in West Africa’s cocoa-growing forests

Chocolate sales have exploded in recent months. As the cost of living crisis rages, consumers are increasingly looking to chocolate as a simple, affordable treat.

The most important ingredient in chocolate is cocoa beans, which come from plants grown in the tropics. Around 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from West Africa. The countries of Ivory Coast (Cote d’Ivoire) and Ghana are two of the largest producers.

Satisfying the world’s insatiable appetite for chocolate has come at a huge environmental cost, as West Africa’s incredibly rich and diverse rainforests are razed to make way for cocoa plantations.

Research by my colleagues and I, published May 22, sheds new light on the problem. Generating a new high-resolution map of cocoa-growing areas in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, we found that the area under cocoa production is truly enormous – and can be associated with up to 37% of the loss of forest in protected areas.

Cocoa cultivation price

West Africa’s Upper Guinea forests have been classified as a “global biodiversity hotspot”, due to their exceptional concentrations of plant and animal species found nowhere else on Earth. But much of this forest has now been destroyed.

Since 1950, Côte d’Ivoire has lost up to 90% of its forest cover and Ghana has lost 65%. Cocoa has been the main driver of this deforestation, along with other crops, mining and logging.

But the exact contribution of cocoa plantations to the problem is not well understood. This is partly due to the lack of an accurate, high-resolution map of cocoa-growing areas.

Without a map, we don’t know where the chocolate we eat comes from. In particular, it is unclear whether cocoa was grown in formerly forested areas, or even illegally in protected areas.

What we have done

We set out to determine the location and extent of cocoa plantations using artificial intelligence.

We used a type of artificial intelligence called a neural network, which allows computers to recognize and predict patterns in data. When a neural network is trained on satellite images showing different land uses, it can apply this “understanding” to identify the same land uses in satellite images of other geographic areas.

In our study, we trained the neural network to recognize cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. We did this using satellite images, as well as the known locations of over 100,000 cocoa farms.

We then verified the accuracy of the information provided by the neural network, engaging field teams to confirm the results at 2,000 random locations in the field.

This combination of cutting-edge technology and hard fieldwork has allowed us to create the first high-resolution map of cocoa production in West Africa. And what the map tells us is disturbing.

A cocoa farmer from Côte d’Ivoire. Credit: KokoDZ, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

What we found

We found that the area devoted to cocoa is enormous, comprising more than seven million hectares of plantations in the two countries. The result is well above the official figures – up to 40% more in the case of Ghana.

Additionally, much of the cocoa plantation area exists in large areas of what was once native forest. And more than 1.5 million hectares of land devoted to cocoa production are located in protected areas.

Deforestation in protected areas is a major global problem. Given where we found cocoa cultivation and where forest loss was observed, we estimate that more than 37% of deforestation in protected areas can be linked to cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire. For Ghana, the figure is 13%.

How do we fix this?

Our map shows the massive role cocoa can play in destroying forests in West Africa, including in protected areas.

This is a complex problem with no easy solution. Cocoa is grown by around two million mostly small-scale farmers who typically live below the poverty line on less than a dollar a day. Expanding their cocoa plantations into the forest is a way for farmers and their families to maintain or improve their livelihoods.

To solve this problem, we need to help farmers manage existing farms more productively and sustainably. Stricter law enforcement is also needed to safeguard protected areas. Both will require action from governments and businesses.

More money from the sale of chocolate should go back to the farmer. And consumers may also have to pay more for their chocolate.

Only determined changes on all these fronts will preserve the remaining forests of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Wilma Hart is a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Queensland.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

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