What can we learn from Brazilian cocoa farmers?

Stina Nilsson By Stina Nilsson, Senior Engagement Manager at GES

For more than 15 years, the cocoa industry and its stakeholders have tried to find ways to improve poor farmer livelihood in West Africa and to address widespread child labour. To effectively engage cocoa companies to progress in this work, GES is constantly looking for new good examples to bring into the dialogue. Besides West Africa, Brazil is one of the top producers of cocoa and as I live in the main cocoa region in Brazil a natural part of this work was to visit some local farmers. So I recently went to see cocoa farmers and cooperatives in the state of Bahia, as well as the governmental research institution providing technical assistance to them.

As is the case around the globe, Brazil is urbanising and has reached about the same urbanisation rates as the Nordic countries and higher levels than those in the US and UK. This of course has implications for the country’s cocoa production. Many of the people I met with explained that the young generation is attracted by the accessibility that city life provides. Interestingly, the only person who seemed to have a different view of the situation was a young farmer who is working at his family’s farm, mainly producing cocoa. According to him, as long as young farmers have access to land, many would be willing to stay at the countryside, and it is rather the lack of opportunities at the countryside than the city magnet that would explain young people’s choices. He also said to me that the main benefit in staying at the countryside is that he can work for himself and his family and not for anyone else.

The Brazilian cocoa producers have of course realised the challenge that urbanisation presents. As an example of the actions to tackle this, one farmer cooperative I visited has a tailored programme for young cocoa farmers, focusing on improving their entrepreneurial skills as commodity producers.

It was obvious during the visits that price is also a big issue. An older farmer couple I spoke to expressed their discontent with the price they receive for their high quality cocoa beans. Theirs is a well-managed smaller scale cocoa farm, where the couple has made minor investments, step by step for decades, to be able to produce beans of highest quality. The sense of pride was evident when the couple showed me around the farm, and likewise the disappointment when the issue of pricing came up. Both the farmers and cooperatives that I spoke to expressed an interest in certifying farms, however they stressed that it has to result in a higher premium to compensate for the extra work and investments required from the producers.

Related to price and income is also the access to credit, or in the case of many Bahian farmers, the lack of it. A number of farmers in the region lost a lot of money trying to fight the cocoa tree disease that spread in the area a few decades ago. It is now difficult for the farmers to be granted loans at the bank and subsequently be able to make necessary productivity-raising investments.

Even though the farmers and cooperatives I met with were not certified, this does not mean that environmental and social issues were not in focus. In Bahia, more and more small-scale farmers are using agroforestry systems at their farms, cultivating cocoa under the shade of trees and together with other crops, such as bananas, corn and cassava. This system is trying to replicate nature’s way of doing things rather than adding pesticides and intense monoculture techniques, which are also degrading the soil. Besides, extra income is provided to the farmers from the additional crops produced. With the West African farmer reality in my mind, I asked how big a farm needs to be for a family to be able to sustain themselves from cocoa farming, and the answer was somewhere between five and ten hectares (depending on productivity). This should be compared with many small-scale farms in West Africa of about two hectares and of course makes the question of living income for these farmers highly relevant.

Both the cooperatives and the governmental agency are actively working together with the farmers. What is working well in terms of productivity-raising programmes in Bahia is when rather intense and frequent technical assistance is provided to farmers. In some of the programmes, farmers are visited at least every month and given hands-on suggestions on how to improve farming techniques. Workshops on specific topics are also organised and both cooperatives and the government agency have agronomists and technical staff available for farmers to call and visit.

So what did I learn, what do I want to bring from Brazilian farmers to the West African context?

Given the urbanisation of young people in Brazil as well as in West Africa, listening to young cocoa farmers and tailoring initiatives according to their thoughts and needs is an absolute key. Access to credit for farmers also needs to be improved in order to ensure long-term investment and to make farms profitable. Moreover, farmers obviously need enough land to make ends meet. The people I met in Brazil said somewhere between five and ten hectares would be appropriate to sustain a family, and so the farm sizes in West Africa of around two hectares needs rethinking if a decent farmer livelihood is the objective.

Agroforestry models are a great opportunity for people and for nature. They have proven effective among Brazilian cocoa farmers, complementing cocoa with additional income, and such models are likely to have similar success elsewhere. Close and frequent connections and assistance, including regular farm visits, between co-operatives, farmers and research institutions have also proven fruitful in Brazil. Indeed, farmer programmes need to include high quality assistance on the ground, not only look good on paper.

There is no doubt that cocoa farming is very labour-intense. Farmers not only deserve but also need to be paid a decent price if the world’s growing demand for chocolate shall be met. High quality beans grown with respect to people and nature must be given special recognition and valued appropriately, regardless of whether they are grown in Brazil or in West Africa.

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