Cocoa farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire earn less than a dollar a day. And there are nearly 2 million; the two countries are the world’s largest cocoa producers, supplying two-thirds of the world’s supply. Cocoa is the main perennial crop in both places.
However, there are no accurate and up-to-date maps of their cocoa plantations. This is a problem because cocoa is known to be the main driver of deforestation in the region. In addition to decimating biodiversity that may never recover, clearcutting forests to plant cocoa (or for any other reason) is making it hotter and making storms stronger, both locally in Africa and all over the planet.
A team of European researchers therefore created a deep neural network to bring together publicly available satellite images of the two countries with georeferenced cocoa plantations, identified by their regular polygons. They then sent a team to Côte d’Ivoire to travel for three months to visit the farms and check their results.
They found that in the densest cocoa-growing regions, about 40 percent of the land is planted with the crop and little or no native forest remains. About 5% of protected areas in Ghana and nearly 15% of protected areas in Côte d’Ivoire have been converted to cocoa plantations—nearly 30% of cocoa plantations in Côte d’Ivoire are within these protected areas.
They calculate that cocoa is directly responsible for almost 40% of deforestation in these protected areas, or around 1.5 million hectares of forest that has disappeared since 2000. A plant health analysis shows that cocoa plants do not are not even doing as well and the yields are low. lower than officially announced.
The authors describe the cocoa supply chain as “rather opaque”, which is a euphemism for “totally piecemeal”. Deforestation is almost the least of them; Drug trafficking and child slavery are also implicated.
This work definitely has somewhat uncomfortable undertones of colonialism; European researchers no doubt have good intentions in wanting to save the forests, and it is absolutely necessary to save the forests, but African farmers and their families also need to eat. As the authors note, “Clearing natural forests to establish new cocoa plantations provides farmers with temporarily fertile land and therefore higher yields and more income in the short term.” Hopefully, after returning from a day of analyzing their monitoring data, the researchers at least pay a fair price for a responsible bean-to-bar solution instead of underpaying for the mass-produced cocoa they spend their time following.
Nature Food, 2023. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-023-00751-8 (About DOIs).