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Cocoa and climate change: can the lame help the blind?

Last modified November 04, 2008 14:33

Climate change, this blind force acting with changing rainfall patterns and amounts, and with increasing temperatures, influences cocoa production most often negatively. In many places, with more and also more aggressive extreme events and higher climate variability as well, this becomes worse. Indeed, it appears as if in quite some places the vulnerability of cocoa production to adverse climatic conditions will be exacerbated (e.g. Anim-Kwapong and Frimpong, 2005). Definitely, that is, if no or too little action is taken.

Kees Stigter
Agromet Vision (Bondowoso, Indonesia and Bruchem, The Netherlands) []


Climate change, this blind force acting with changing rainfall patterns and amounts, and with increasing temperatures, influences cocoa production most often negatively. In many places, with more and also more aggressive extreme events and higher climate variability as well, this becomes worse. Indeed, it appears as if in quite some places the vulnerability of cocoa production to adverse climatic conditions will be exacerbated (e.g. Anim-Kwapong and Frimpong, 2005). Definitely, that is, if no or too little action is taken.

Trees store much of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide and therefore also cocoa trees can mitigate global warming (Sommariba, 2006). We should, however, not forget that profusely growing trees do even more so. For cocoa plantations, shade trees improve the positive absorption balance of healthily pruned cocoa of over 70 ton ha-1 year-1 (at 1100 cocoa plants per hectare), although respiration processes account for losses comparable to what shade trees add (Abdoellah, 2007).

Reading the literature on cocoa production, with only few exceptions the industry has very often been paralysed by insustainability from a series of causes (e.g. Ruf and Zadi, 1998; Anim-Kwapong and Frimpong, 2005). The upcoming proceedings of the 2008 Indonesian Cocoa Symposium (2008 ICS) only confirm this. Their origins range from economic to environmental (soil, water, climate). Can such a lame production system positively help the blind climate change in any way to remain within limits with its devastations?

There are many angles from which cocoa production can be seen. The 2008 ICS confirmed that issues related to health are generally positive (mainly due to polyphenol as antioxidant compound and some other compounds) although its consumption is related to sugar intake and fattening, even more so locally where “garbage chocolate” is consumed.

Issues related to human security are those related to disasters that damage cocoa production as a livelihood support system. Pests (such as the now very dangerous and widely spread Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB) that was extensively discussed at the 2008 ICS) and fungus diseases (such as the also highly dangerous and widely spread Vascular Streak Dieback (VSD), that was also extensively discussed at the 2008 ICS), droughts, storms and frost are those most abundantly found in the literature and they have all relations with climate change.

Resource conflicts (water, land or other production factors) are increasingly getting out of hand (e.g. Sudan, Nigeria, Israel/Palestine, Columbia). Cocoa could become part of such events.


As far as the influence of agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere is concerned, healthily growing systems on healthy organic soils, with the healthiest microclimate conditions and the lowest possible use of artificial fertilizers for the most suitable cocoa varieties, are the best contribution. Another condition to be taken into account for carbon dioxide sequestration is the level, ageing and renewal of shading used in the cocoa production. Shading runs from zero, via light to heavy shade. Abdoellah (2007) mentions from 275 to 550 shade trees per hectare as optimum densities. This also influences growth climate temperatures, humidities and wind speeds as services (or sometimes disservices) rendered (Stigter and Baldy, 1993; Abdoellah, 2007). Irrigation increases reductions of maximum air temperatures under shade (Baldy and Stigter, 1997) but counteracts humidity decreases under shade (Abdoellah, 2007). This is an important advantage for warming but could enhance occurrence of diseases.

I suggested during the 2008 ICS that CPB could be negatively influenced by more frequently occurring and more intensive drought periods and positively by more intensive rainfall in the rainy seasons, as has been reported for various parts of Indonesia as a consequence of climate change. This was confirmed at the 2008 ICS by a farmer who reported that a rare typhoon saved them from CPB recently! For VSD, it may be the higher humidity that acts negatively and drought that may have a positive influence. These correlations will have to be researched.

Cocoa is well comparable to what Murugan et al. (private communication, 2008) believe for cardamom in India. They have postulated that development of high yielding cardamom varieties and types which can intercept more light, under optimum shade level, with high water use efficiency, would be a good strategy to manage the cardamom agroforestry system in a rational way. And for cardamom is true what they say for cocoa: degradation of the forests in which they are grown in the classic systems has been generally observed everywhere. But it may be done differently also in these rainforest agroforestry systems (Silberner, 2008, on the “Cabruca” Farming in Brazil; Rainforest Alliance, 2008, on work in Costa Rica’s Talamanca mountains).

In such rainforest systems, only few original trees are sacrificed and cocoa grown under still dense original shade “mimicking nature”. Yes, this gives less yields but also yes, this gives less pests and disease problems and is positive for carbon sequestration. In a system like in Brazil attempts are made to improve soil, degraded after deforestation, with growing annual cash crops, then introduce shade, then introduce cocoa (Silberner, 2008). Again very positive for carbon sequestration.

Shade trees in an agroforestry system often include other species of economic value, which can reduce farmers' risks connected with growing a single crop. Examples of this can also be found in the Proceedings of the 2008 ICS. However, many farmers have cut forest to open up new fields and grow cocoa more intensively without shade. This approach has short term benefits on yields and is suitable only for hybrid plants that are increasingly replacing native cocoa. Unfortunately, these hybrid plants require the application of agrochemicals and grow in open fields, which leads to increased erosion and run-off, reducing soil fertility and contributing to water contamination and health problems (Rainforest Alliance, 2008). In general it was reported at the 2008 ICS that low shade indeed makes cocoa unhappy and vulnerable.

This means that in adaptation strategies to climate change that involve cocoa trees, climate related calamities apart, we can’t have such no to low shade production systems for internal and external reasons. In addition to preparedness for weather and climate extremes and their consequences (Stigter, 2007b), changes in cocoa production systems may therefore have to occur almost everywhere.

This may go from complete overhauls or full renewals of existing cocoa production systems to highly increasing efficiencies of systems by better managing and manipulating water, soil, microclimate and markets. Like this is true for changes in rice production policies in Vietnam, China and hopefully soonest Indonesia (Stigter, 2007a), consequences of climate change may have been the final convincing factor to get much more serious in cocoa production to prevent collapses (Diamond, 2007). In fact, only adaptations by such serious policy changes can deny the pessimistic scenarios of the future of cocoa production a chance (see also Charles, 2008). Only this way can strengthened cocoa systems help to keep the blind climate change within limits.

Some ways to go

Ruf and Zadi (1998) have summarized knowledge and recommendations related to sustainable cocoa production of which we have chosen those that we feel are still valid a decade later. We have selected measures that improve the livelihood of small-scale farmers and bear relevance to adaptation strategies to climate change that ten years ago was not yet an issue as important as today. We were guided in this choice by policies recently proposed by Anim-Kwapong and Frimpong (2005).

The first issue is the need for forest reserves as public goods and the prevention of timber extraction in these reserves as well as the prevention of bush fires at certain periods of years, under village control. Only in such cases as the already above mentioned special rainforest systems in Brazil and Costa Rica, cocoa may be introduced. Highly complex agroforestry systems, tree fallows followed by leguminous trees and “tree-crop shifting cultivation” have been successful to regenerate forest tree species and forest environment. Cocoa could play a role here, in each case with local solutions, of which some were exemplified at the 2008 ICS. Carbon sequestration is again served.

Intercropping trees, including fruit trees and timber species, in line with thinning of aging cocoa trees, is a good policy. One step further and the shade trees are grown from newly available land, after which the cocoa is introduced. These are examples of overhauling or renewing existing systems that would benefit carbon sequestration. Cocoa would be related to reforestation now instead of the deforestation of the past.

Related here is to retrocede to farmers the rights of selling timber and promoting small scale wood processing units at village levels, as well as using contracts with forestry services. Reconversion of estates to be sold to smallholders with State help also falls in this category of creating better livelihood conditions for small-scale cocoa producers.

Initial and boundary conditions

The above directions, that combine healthy developments in cocoa production systems with carbon sequestration, must go hand in hand with appropriate initial and boundary conditions promoting factors determining long term yields. They are the selectively chosen use of fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides, good use of other management factors such as in pruning and shading and extension work on all these factors for and by farmers to encourage them to adopt efficient farming practices. Protection from worsening extreme events (floods, droughts, winds etc.) also belongs here.

It is well known that other conditions of this kind are high prices of cocoa, facilitating an easier access to credit and affordable inputs through farmers’ associations, good land tenure and labour policies. In Ruf and Zadi (1998) finally a host of other economic and social factors are mentioned that could contribute to improving the livelihood of small cocoa farmers. The 2008 ICS was also holding good examples.

At the end of this paper, what is essential is to mention the way in which all these issues can be brought up and discussed with farmers. We strongly believe that Farmer Field Classes (FFSs) and/or Climate Field Classes (CFSs) are the missing link between measures proposed as services products to farmers that (also) grow cocoa and the actual establishment of such services on-farm with these farmers. This includes farmer innovations stimulated by the positive outlook that the new directions may create. FFSs and CFSs are the exciting new extension approaches that make another difference with the past (Stigter, 2008). Interventions by farmers during the 2008 ICS did only confirm the need for such undertakings.


Abdoellah, S., 2007. CO2 absorption-emission balance in cocoa plantation. Paper submitted to the Directorate General of Estates, Ministry of Agriculture, Republic of Indonesia, for Global Warming Discussion, Jakarta, 3 December 2007.
Anim-Kwapong, G.J. and Frimpong, E.B., 2005. Vulnerability of agriculture to climate change: impact of climate change on cocoa production.
Baldy C. and Stigter, C.J., 1997. Agrometeorology of multiple cropping in warm climates. Translated from the French edition with an Epilogue. INRA, Paris, France + Oxford & IBH Publ. Co., New Delhi, India + Science Publ. Inc., Enfield, USA, 237 pp.
Charles, D., 2008. Food & climate; a complicated but optimistic view.
Diamond, J., 2007. Collapse: how societies choose to fail or succeed. Penguin, London and New York, 592 pp.
Rainforest Alliance, 2008. Sustainable Agriculture.
Ruf, F. and Zadi, H., 1998. Cocoa: from deforestation to reforestation. Shade grown cocoa workshop.
Silberner, J., 2008. How chocolate can save the planet.
Sommariba, E. 2006. Agroforestry with cocoa. International Cocoa Research Conference Proceedings, San Jose, Costa Rica, 9-10 October 2006, p. 261-264.
Stigter, K., 2007a. New cropping systems to help farmers. Jakarta Post of 22 January, p. 7.
Stigter, K., 2007b. Addressing climate change in agriculture. Jakarta Post of 15 October, p. 5.
Stigter, K., 2008. Policy support for capacity building (in weather and climate services focused on agriculture). Paper version of a PowerPoint presentation for the Management Group of WMO/CAgM. Obninsk, Russia, 12 June.
Stigter C.J. and Baldy, C., 1993. Manipulation of the microclimate by intercropping: making the best of services rendered. In: H. Sinoquet and P. Cruz (Eds.), Ecophysiology of tropical intercropping, INRA, Paris/Guadeloupe (French Antilles) (pp. 29 – 44).

[The above paper is an updated version of November 2008, for INSAM, of an invited paper by Kees Stigter and Soetanto Abdoellah, presented in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, on 28 October, the first day of the “2008 Indonesian Cocoa Symposium”, hosted by the Indonesian Coffee and Cocoa Research Institute, Jember, Indonesia. KS.]

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