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19/07/2018 – News / Agriculture / Sustainability / Cocoa / Farming / Deforestation / Colombia

How cocoa farming can preserve forests and peace in Colombia

Victor Combita runs a sustainable cocoa co-operative, alongside several hundred other farmers in San José del Guaviare, Colombia

Colombia is the latest country to join the Cocoa and Forests Initiative, which aims to create a global movement for deforestation-free cocoa. Edward Davey of the World Resources Institute (WRI) reports on how cocoa farming holds the potential to both preserve forests and promote peace in the South American country.


Victor Combita is a cocoa farmer and community leader from San José del Guaviare in the heart of the Colombian Amazon. For many years, his region was the epicentre of Colombia’s civil conflict. It is also among the states with the highest deforestation rates, as a result of livestock, the production of coca (the plant used to make cocaine) and illegal timber clearing. 


However, Combita seeks a different path


Alongside several hundred farmers, he runs a sustainable cocoa co-operative, providing high-quality Fino de Aroma coffee while also protecting and restoring forests. It is for farmers like Combita that Colombia’s recent joining of the Cocoa and Forests Initiative is such a significant move. The Initiative, which began in 2017 in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, aims to create a global movement for zero-deforestation cocoa. What better region for this type of production than the areas adjoining some of the world’s most intact and important tropical rainforests, such as the recently enlarged Chiribiquete National Park – the largest national park in Colombia and the largest tropical rainforest national park in the world?


Sustainable cocoa for forests


Colombia joins the initiative as part of its engagement in the Food and Land Use Coalition, a public-private collaboration to develop strategies for sustainable rural economic development.


Unlike in West Africa, cocoa production has not caused significant deforestation in Colombia. Other drivers like livestock and coca production (the plant whose recreational product is cocaine), illegal timber, mining and infrastructure development are responsible. Recent rates of deforestation have skyrocketed in the country, largely attributable to the paradox of Colombia’s new-found peace: Areas that were once off-limits to development as a result of the presence of illegal armed groups are now quickly being converted to agriculture and other uses.


The Government of Colombia believes cocoa can be a solution to this problem, as part of a concerted strategy to close pristine forests to development and restore degraded areas of land with agroforestry-based cocoa. This type of production happens in tandem with nature – cocoa plants grow beneath the shade of on-farm trees. Progress to date is heartening: From the Amazon to the Pacific, Colombia has invested in thousands of hectares of agroforestry-based cocoa schemes, taking pressure off biodiverse natural forests and restoring ecological health to degraded landscapes. The result is deforestation-free cocoa.


Enhancing Colombia’s economy


Colombia’s cocoa has also been positive for rural development and job creation in remote areas, which were beset by conflict for decades. Ex-combatants now find decent work on cocoa co-operatives, supported by the National Cocoa Federation, the company Casa Luker, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, and the international community. Colombian ‘campesinos’ previously involved in the production of coca (the plant used to make cocaine) have found a viable alternative in cocoa – without the violence associated with the coca trade. Smallholder farmers with one or two heads of cattle per hectare have been able to diversify to include cocoa and timber on their farms.


Boosting resilience to climate change


Colombia has experienced record floods and droughts in recent years, fuelled by climate change and exacerbated by the climate phenomenon El Niño. Agroforestry-based cocoa, coupled with a ‘silvopastoral’ approach to livestock management involving more trees in the landscape, has enabled farmers to adapt to Colombia’s changing climate and become more resilient. And new, more productive, drought-tolerant varieties of cocoa, developed in partnership with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture(CIAT), the Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (Corpoica), have enabled greater yields to be harvested from existing agricultural lands, raising farmer incomes and productivity. 


A better future for rural communities


The future of the Colombian peace process rests to a significant degree on how the country delivers a better future for its rural communities. The Colombian Peace Agreement attaches great importance to “integrated agricultural reform”, the provision of viable alternative livelihoods for smallholder farmers coupled with land tenure rights, better infrastructure and access to markets. Colombia’s Fino de Aroma cocoa has a distinctive quality – fruity, nutty and flowery – therefore representing an important niche in the market.


As both deforestation-free and ‘peace-friendly’, Colombia’s allegiance to the Cocoa and Forests Initiative will undoubtedly generate greater global market interest in Colombian cocoa. The World Cocoa Foundation counts within its membership many of the world’s largest traders and producers of cocoa. Its support for Colombia’s entry into the Cocoa and Forests Initiative sends a powerful signal. The Colombian chapter of the World Economic Forum’s New Vision for Agriculture, hosted by IDH, recently selected cocoa as one of its focus commodities – another encouraging sign that the sector’s future will be bright.


Certainly, the prospects for the global cocoa industry in terms of demand are highly encouraging. In 2016 the global chocolate market was valued at US$99 billion, with currently over 60 per cent of the world’s cocoa produced by smallholder farmers in Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana and Indonesia. Given the obvious benefits of mitigating risk in the supply chain by increasing production elsewhere, this obviously presents a huge opportunity for Colombian agriculture.


Ultimately, Colombia finds itself at an important crossroads. The government of president-elect Ivan Duque takes office next month (he is expected to be sworn in on 7th August) with an encouragingly strong commitment to rural development, ecosystem protection and market transformation. The stage is set for success. For farmer Victor Combita, and thousands like him, there is a bright future in which peace, forests and cocoa all prevail – in Colombia and the world at large.

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