Cocoa farmers in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire earn less than a dollar a day. And there are almost 2 million of them; the two countries are the largest producers of cocoa in the world, supplying two-thirds of the global supply. Cocoa is the main perennial crop in both areas.
However, there are no up-to-date, accurate maps of their cocoa plantations. This is a problem because cocoa is known to be a major cause of deforestation in the region. In addition to irreparably damaging biodiversity, clearing forests to plant cocoa (or for other reasons) will heat them up and intensify storms, both locally in Africa and across the planet.
So a group of European researchers developed a deep neural network to collect publicly available satellite images of two countries with georeferenced cocoa farms, identified by their regular polygons. Then they had a team in Côte d’Ivoire that went on foot for three months to visit farms and verify 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 percent of Ghana’s protected areas and nearly 15 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s protected areas have been converted to cocoa farms—almost 30 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa farms are in these protected areas place
They calculate that cocoa is directly responsible for nearly 40 percent of the deforestation in these protected areas—about 1.5 million hectares of forest have been lost since 2000. Plant health analysis shows that cocoa plants are not even healthy. , and the yield is lower than officially reported.
The authors describe the cocoa supply chain as “becoming opaque,” which is a euphemism for “absolutely sketchy.” Deforestation is the least of these; including drug trafficking and child slavery.
This work certainly has uncomfortable shades of colonialism; European explorers no doubt had good intentions in trying to save forests, and forests must be saved, but African farmers and their families also needed to eat. As the authors note, “The clearing of natural forests to build new cocoa farms provides farmers with temporary fertile land and thus higher yields and more income in the short term. that time.” Hopefully, after returning home from a day of analyzing their monitoring data, the researchers will at least shell out a fair price for a responsible bean-to- bar instead of paying less for the mass-produced cocoa they spend their time tracking down.
Nature Food, 2023. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-023-00751-8 (Part of DOIs).