Cocoa in DR Congo — Turning threat into opportunity

Cocoa in DR Congo — Turning threat into opportunity

DR Congo - 20 June, 2022

In 2021, hundreds of farmers throughout the Bafwasende landscape started to establish cocoa agroforestry systems on previously deforested lands, with the help of Tropenbos DR Congo. This is a major step towards more sustainable farming and improved livelihoods.

The Bafwasende landscape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) is one of the most densely forested areas in the world. The indigenous population is scattered across remote villages, living subsistence lifestyles. They typically use fire to open up the forest for cultivation, and move on after a couple of years, when the soils are depleted.

In recent years, the landscape has undergone rapid changes. Large numbers of migrants, mostly Yira people originating in North Kivu province, have come to Bafwasende looking for land to cultivate. Based on their traditions, the Yira started cultivating cocoa in mixed agroforestry systems, which provided food as well as cash income, without depleting the soil. With the growth of cocoa farms in Bafwasende, the local trade in cocoa also started surging, driven by the ever-growing international demand. Traders started travelling on motorbikes and boats from village to village, in search of farmers selling cocoa.

Although the coming of the Yira has led to tensions with the original population and has increased the pressure on the forest, it has also provided new opportunities. Tropenbos DR Congo realized that the original population could learn from the Yira about sustainable agriculture, and could benefit from the increasing market for cocoa. The challenge, however, was to prevent the adoption of cocoa cultivation from leading to further deforestation. Tropenbos DR Congo therefore started helping farmers with establishing mixed agroforestry systems (combining cocoa with other useful species such as fruit trees, and trees that function as hosts for edible caterpillars) on the condition that these farms were established on previously deforested lands within community forest concessions.

As community forest concessions are collectively owned, the initial idea was to establish communal farms. Field technicians of Tropenbos DR Congo worked on this for two years, but the concept never really took off. People seemed to have little interest in collective farming. Tropenbos DR Congo then drastically changed its strategy. The communal farm was transformed into a training plot, and the field technicians started assisting individual farmers to establish their own mixed agroforestry systems, within the degraded parts of the community forest concessions, by providing them with seeds and technical advice. Suddenly, things started moving rapidly. Throughout 2021, more than 460 households in 28 villages requested and received support for agroforest establishment. Even the field technicians themselves were surprised by the success.

Mixed agroforestry systems require less land than traditional shifting cultivation practices. Moreover, they provide cash income that is needed to pay for healthcare and education, as well as fruit, caterpillars and vegetables for subsistence purposes. For this reason, the adoption of agroforestry is an important step to improve local livelihoods. The next step is to connect the cocoa farmers in Bafwasende to the market for zero-deforestation cocoa, which may pay a premium price. This will provide an extra incentive for farmers to focus their production on previously deforested lands.  

stamp-01.pngThis article is part of the TBI Annual review 2021,
due for release in July 2022