Guest Post: Blood chocolate – climate change and conflict in the West African cocoa belt

Guest Post: Blood chocolate – climate change and conflict in the West African cocoa belt

Cocoa is a vital economic sector in West Africa, but climate change threatens to reduce the area suitable for its cultivation, bringing with it a risk for mass migration and civil violence.

The West African Cocoa Belt is a region of coastal forest that skirts along the Gulf of Guinea from Cameroon all the way to Sierra Leone. Together, it accounts for roughly 70 percent of global cocoa production. It is cultivated by millions of predominantly small-holder farmers, who largely live on less than two dollars a day. Valued at over $100 billion dollars annually, the cocoa industry relies on these African farmers. However, they receive a tiny fraction of the profits generated throughout the industry’s globalized supply chain. Additionally, these farmers are disproportionately exposed to the risks associated with global climate change, which is predicted to have a significant effect on quantity and location of land suitable for cocoa cultivation in coming decades. The threat climate change poses to cocoa production in West Africa could in turn stimulate significant geopolitical risk through migration, resource competition and civil unrest.

Climate change and cocoa

Several factors have combined to make cocoa cultivation in West Africa highly unsustainable. Cocoa is known as a ‘pioneer crop’, because rather than replanting trees on existing plots of land, farmers are able to generate greater yields by migrating to new plots in virgin forest. This is compounded by the high costs of agricultural inputs like fertilizer, which disincentives farmers from maintaining or replanting aging farms. These factors fueled an expansion of cultivation into virgin forest areas. Once one of the most heavily forested areas in the world, West Africa has seen massive deforestation over the past half-century. For example, the Ivory Coast’s forests stocks declined from approximately 16 million hectars in 1960 to just 2.5 million in 1990. This has in turn, accelerated the pace of climate change, which poses a serious threat to the long-term viability of cocoa cultivation in the region and consequently the global supply of cocoa.

Loss of forest canopy, combined with a general rise in regional average temperatures over the coming decades is predicted to increase the frequency and severity of droughts in West Africa. Cocoa is a drought sensitive crop and as the dry seasons become longer and hotter on average, the Northern regions of the cocoa belt will likely become unsuitable for cocoa production within the next few decades. This will have a major effect on Nigeria, Togo, Ghana, and the Ivory Coast, which could all experience major migrations of people looking to move to more suitable growing regions further South. This poses a serious risk to the geopolitical stability of West African states. There is a precedent here, as many of these factors played a leading role in the causes of the Ivorian Civil War during the early 2000s.

Ivorian Civil War

The threat climate change poses to the West African Cocoa Belt could destabilize several countries in the region. As the total area suitable for cocoa cultivation declines, competition over land and resources can fuel ethnic and religious rivalries, which can then spill over in to widespread violence and civil conflict. This process was evident in the build up to the First Ivorian Civil War (2002-2007).

The Ivory Coast was led by its first president, Félix Houphouët-Boigny for the first 33 years its independence. Expanding the cocoa sector was a central priority of his government, but he was confronted by an underpopulated country desperate for labour. Houphouët-Boigny opted to promote mass migration of largely Muslim migrant labourers from neighbouring Burkina Faso and Mali to expand pioneer cocoa fronts into new areas of the virgin forest. He went as far as extending citizenship rights to whoever was willing to ‘work the land’.

Tensions began once virgin forest began to run out, and following Houphouët-Boigny’s death in 1993, the country was thrown into political turmoil. As competition over fertile land intensified, group-identities hardened and many Southern Ivorian’s began to resent the presence of the population who had migrated to work in the cocoa sector. Eventually this erupted into a full-scale ethno-religious civil war that effectively partitioned the country for five years. Cocoa, migration, and natural resources were all driving factors in this bloody conflict.

It’s not hard to envision a similar conflict occurring in the coming years if West African states do not effectively plan and prepare for the changes climate change will bring. As formerly productive regions become too hot to support cocoa cultivation, the mass migration of farmers South could easily create the similar conditions of competition over land and resources, potentially sparking a new ‘Cocoa War’. It is thus in the interest of political leaders in the region to adequately prepare for the future consequences of climate change on their cocoa sectors. It will also be important for global stakeholders, especially transnational confectionary corporations, to recognize this threat to the region and to the long-term outlook of global cocoa production.

Mitigation and adaptation

While climate change does pose a significant threat to the West African cocoa sector, there are several important ways regional and global actors can act to moderate its effects. On the local level, farmers can adopt more sustainable farming methods that will make their crops more resilient to the predicted rise in temperatures. Currently, the principle method of cocoa farming is ‘zero-shade’, which clear-cutting plots before they are planted. This method provides higher and quicker yields for farmers, but also makes their crops more susceptible to drought and pests. As an alternative, shaded cultivation maintains parts of the forest canopy, which shelters the trees from the direct sunlight and protects them from rising temperatures and drought. Encouraging cocoa farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices like shaded-cultivation, as well as working to reduce the costs of inputs like fertilizer, can help farmers maintain their existing plots and improve the overall resiliency of the West African cocoa sector.

An important way political leaders of these cocoa producing countries can improve their capacity to adapt to the effects of climate change is through inter-state cooperation on issues pertaining to trade and development. A positive step in this regard was the signing of the Abidjan Declaration in March of this year by the Presidents of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. This new strategic partnership aims to enhance both nations’ bargaining power in the global supply chain for cocoa, which in turn will provide better prices for West African cocoa farmers’ yields. Another positive development is the African Continental Free Trade Zone, which lowers transition costs for intra-African trade and stimulates infrastructure investment. These types of capacity-building agreements are important in order to ensure these countries can support their cocoa sectors through periods of transition.

Finally, major players in the global supply chain for cocoa should take steps to protect the long-term prospects of the crop they are dependent on. Through the combination of growing consumer demand for ethically sourced and sustainable products, a number of major confectionary corporations have already launched programs to support development in the cocoa sector. Efforts such as Mondelez’s Cocoa Life initiative are promising, but more can and should be done to ensure cocoa farmers are being fairly compensated and are able to adapt to the effects of climate change. Fostering greater equity within the global supply chain for cocoa is a necessary step to bolster the capacity of those on its bottom rung to weather climatic changes in coming years and provide the supply needed to meet global demand.

The risks posed by climate change to the cocoa sector in West Africa are both localized and global. Without adequate engagement from both African leaders and global supply chain actors, the upheavals caused by climate change’s effects on cocoa cultivation could have major geopolitical and humanitarian consequences. Stakeholders must act in the present to address this challenge in order to avoid potential calamity in the future.

Tim Robinson is Editor in Chief for the Center of Development and Strategy, and a former fellow at the NATO Defense College.

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Guest Post

This article was published as part of the GRI Guest Post Series. GRI guest posts come from leading experts in business, government, and academia. The series strives to bring a diverse range of perspectives on the critical issues of our time. The views expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or opinions of GRI.