Q&A: sustainable agriculture expert, Christian Mensah

christian mensah
Making Ghana’s cocoa sector more sustainable isn’t the easiest of tasks but for the Louis Bolk Institute’s Christian Mensah that’s all part of the job. Ruth Styles caught up with him to find out how he’s doing it

Ghana exports over 40,000 tonnes of cocoa beans every year, many of which end up in the UK. As demand for cocoa products continues to grow, sustainability and eco-friendly production methods have become increasingly important, both in Ghana and in other cocoa-producing countries. The big question has been one of implementation. After all, persuading farmers to adopt new techniques and then encouraging big business to pay a premium for it isn’t the easiest of tasks.

But that’s exactly what the Rainforest Alliance is attempting to achieve via its certification programme. And that’s where Christian Mensah comes in. Project leader at the Louis Bolk Institute, Christian is on the frontline of the war against environmentally damaging farming practices in tropical countries. Working with the RFA and its partners in the Sustainable Agriculture Network [SAN], he helps to promote the SAN standard to new target communities and groups, and facilitates farmer organisation. He also develops and supervises training programmes aimed at introducing eco-conscious farming to Ghana’s cocoa businesses. So how’s he doing it? The Ecologist caught up with him to find out more.

Ruth Styles: What’s been the impact of conventional cocoa farming in Africa on biodiversity and eco systems?
Christian Mensah: ‘A recent study commissioned by a company buying cocoa in Ghana summarises the impact of conventional cocoa farming on biodiversity and ecosystems. The study concluded that the problem is complex and diverse, and we might need cross-sector intervention to address them. The baseline showed that Ghana has experienced significant forest loss through the movements of the timber sector and expansion of the cocoa industry by promotion of zero shade cocoa production systems. This has gradually led to the fragmentation of forest landscapes, loss of wildlife corridors and forest connectivity and degradation of biodiversity. One of the more prominent consequences of deforestation, which has significantly affected cocoa production, is the significant loss of major soil nutrients. This has been a leading cause of the gradual decline of national cocoa yields.

The expansion of the cocoa industry and resultant forest loss was not only driven by the desire to increase national production but was also a result of migrant farmers from Burkina Faso securing land tenure rights. Thus, tenure issues have been an ongoing problem and have facilitated forest loss by removal of forests to establish cocoa farms. Land tenure policy has also been a significant driver in the lack of on-farm investment generally. This has constrained expansion of more environmentally sound production. Today farmers have very limited incentives to plant or maintain shade trees because of land tenure issues with landowners, and landowners have limited rights to preserve naturally occurring trees on their land.

There is also a lack of awareness about tree tenure rights. Unsustainable production methods have driven cocoa farmers to extend into forested areas but they are now left with little land for further expansion. In fact, many cocoa farms in Ghana today need to be rehabilitated if productivity declines are to be reversed. Work is currently underway to support this, led by the Cocoa Swollen Shoot Virus programme. However, farmers have limited incentives and capital to successfully undertake rehabilitation and to manage farms in a more sustainable manner going forward.’

RS: Tenure rights are clearly a problem. Is pesticide use also an issue? Have you been able to find and introduce alternatives?
CM: ‘In Ghana, the Cocoa Board has an approved list of pesticides that can be used on cocoa farms. Fortunately all those pesticides are also approved for use on Rainforest Alliance certified farms. However the challenge is that Rainforest Alliance certification has a whole farm system approach to sustainability, which requires behavioural changes rather than a simple ‘dos and don’t's’. SAN banned pesticides like Paraquat and Atrazine in 2005 but these are widely used in Ghana on cereals on adjacent plots. Alternatives to these pesticides exist but selling countries have not yet made the switch to new types of agriculture production.’

RS: You’ve mentioned shade trees; what other steps are you taking to improve sustainability on cocoa farms?

CM: ‘We recognise that no single solution can bring about sustainability and that working together with all stakeholders helps. SAN's approach comprehensively addresses the three pillars of sustainability: environmental protection, social equity and economic viability. Farmers tell us that meeting the criteria is a challenge but doing so helps them farm intelligently, gain confidence, get ahead and plan for their futures. To become Rainforest Alliance certified; farms have to be audited by the independent international certification body - Sustainable Farm Certification International.

We have added value to many existing projects in Ghana by helping them to achieve Rainforest Alliance certification. We have been working with companies and traders to support this effort and to ensure a sustainable supply and production of certified beans. These companies make commitments to increase demand for the beans. Some also directly invest in farmer training and education whiles other directly support the implementation of group models to achieve our certification.

Standards set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network are best practices that aim at sustainability. It’s not only for the purpose of certification – it’s embedded in the principle of continuous improvement and I really wish all producers were in compliance. Our world would be a better place. We have also been collaborating with a lot of other stakeholders such as the Sustainable Tree Crop Programme, the Cadbury Cocoa Partnership and the World Cocoa Foundation among others to ensure alignment and better coordination.’

RS: Do you envision a role for conservation groups as well?
CM: ‘Conservationists have always been part and parcel of our work. We develop our standards with them and work with them in the field to train producers, monitor progress and engage stakeholders to define specific indicators in the country. At present we are working with conservationists to implement projects in biodiversity hotspots in Ghana as a strategy to protect those reserves, improve the biodiversity and the quality of life of the people and empower the communities to take control of their own resources.

We are also working with conservationists to determine indicators for measuring the biodiversity impact of sustainable farming. Sometimes we also come face to face with the reality and complexity of policy issues that do not incentivise producers to invest in sustainable farming. We have been working with conservationists who understand these issues on advocacy towards influencing legislations and policies on tree tenure among others.’

RS: You mentioned that Cadbury is one of the stakeholders in your programme. Will major corporate involvement help create a more eco-friendly cocoa industry?
CM: ‘Any corporate involvement must be tangible and measurable. Past commitments that saw companies giving to causes for charitable purposes but not linking those donations to their business operations are old fashioned and do not help sustainability in any way. We need to be smart and realise that we cannot negotiate with biodiversity and the quality of life of people. When they are destroyed, we can never replace them. The commitment of companies must also reflect in the way they do business – integrity, ethical and responsible.

Commitment and involvement must be farmer-centred. We will need to empower our communities to demand the services of our extension agents, educators, researchers, businesses and financial institutions to enable them solve their own problems. Involvement must also engage our governments rather than working against them. Governments need to be assured of sustainable demand. They need infrastructure to support the development of certification supply chains and they need support to facilitate the development of a credible system of assurance and traceability.

In Ghana, there are virtually no new lands to crop cocoa. The existing land and farmers are either producing conventional or sustainable cocoa. The more demand from industry for a more ecological friendly cocoa, the more conventional farmers will switch to adopt best management practices and make the necessary changes towards continuous improvement. It is as simple as that.’

RS: Now big business is on board, are farmers at grassroots level making the switch to more sustainable farming methods?
CM: ‘Farmers are not enemies of nature. They understand that a healthy ecosystem supports their production through environmental services such as pest control, pollination and soil fertility. But they do not always have the knowledge, technology or support to farm in the most efficient way for nature; and as a result they may make inappropriate choices for the long-term health of their farms and communities.

Certification is bringing signals from the market that they need to make changes and crucially it is also bringing training and technical assistance in how to make those changes. For example, there is no tolerance of further destruction of any natural ecosystem, no destruction of high value ecosystems due to purposeful farm management activities and integrating sustainable production of crops and livestock into their local strategies that favour biodiversity conservation and safeguard social and environmental wellbeing. Achieving sustainability is a combined effort, in which the farmers, government, industry and technical assistance providers share a common vision and play their particular role to bring it about.’

RS: What are the principle challenges you are facing in Ghana in terms of implementing these sustainable practices?
CM: ‘There are a number of different challenges including inadequate capacity and knowledge in setting up and training producers in certification or sustainable practices. Sustainability also describes a means of reducing costs and improving profits. Many initiatives have focused on the use of synthetic chemicals, which are becoming more and more expensive, and reliance on premium-based markets. These make decision to invest and commit into long-term sustainability of farms quite difficult for producers to make.

Another problem is cultural as some of the standard requirements are alien to African culture and are sometimes considered neo-colonialism. Child labour for example has many meanings depending on where the person or group is coming from. Without proper interpretation at the local level, such requirements are seen as alien and at variance to the culture of the people. Alternatives to slash and burn are sometimes seen as alien but that is the best practice. This is why certification is creating more awareness among the farmers. The farmers are learning to consider health and safety issues, strengthen and empower their communities, protect biodiversity and wildlife, and consider farming as a business and mitigate and adapt to climate change.’

RS: Obviously sustainable cocoa growing practices will be a boon to the eco-systems in target countries; how can they help the communities based in and around those eco-systems?   
CM: ‘As the "people, planet and prosperity" message spreads through the marketplace, demand for goods from sustainable farms will continue to grow. So in the short and medium term, we need the market and companies not only to invest in sustainable production but to also ensure that people whose lives depend on the land are rewarded for implementing best practices.

In the long term, there are many ways that sustainable cocoa growing will benefit the communities. For example, productive tropical agriculture requires managing pests and diseases, which can be responsible for losses of 25 to 30 per cent, and fertilisation, to redress soil quality depletion. You can imagine the improvement in productivity and income when farmers adopt ICM to reduce pests and adopt responsible fertilisation to improve on soil nutrients.  When farms maintain a canopy of native and crop yielding trees, they not only conserve biodiversity but diversify their income and secure the future of their children who might harvest those trees in a sustainable way.

As a consequence producers would have increased income through the adoption of best management practices to increase production and quality and sales of Rainforest Alliance Certified beans. We also have a strong argument that increasing investment in natural resources management and rural development is critical to reducing poverty, improving food security and enhancing biodiversity conservation.’

RS: In terms of the growing global demand for cocoa and looking to the years ahead, how are you planning to factor in increased demand? Will you be able to balance demand with conservation?
CM: The Rainforest Alliance label with its frog is a reminder and an assurance to the customer that the cocoa beans, which are used to make their chocolate, are sustainably sourced and that in the origin countries like Ghana, biodiversity is conserved and sustainable livelihoods are ensured. The Rainforest Alliance also has a strategy to transfer direct training of producers to the private sector.

As a result, there is massive increase in the number of producers undergoing training and the hectares of cocoa farms implementing best practices to achieve certification. We are working with these companies to ensure that they are responsible and ethical. In that way we can achieve a good balance between meeting the high demand for certified beans and our vision of conserving biodiversity. Indeed as a conservationist and development organisation, we also have a strategy to continue to source support to implement specific projects that embodies our core mission. We are working with our forestry programme in the Bia reserves and with organisations like the Conservation Alliance in the Kakum National Park. We hope to scale these up to other areas.’

All photos courtesy of Francisco Naranjo. To find out more about the work SAN and the Rainforest Alliance are doing in Ghana, go to www.rainforest-alliance.org

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