In Cameroon, when cocoa and forest preservation try to go hand in hand

All the gold of Mbam is there, within machete reach

In Cameroon, when cocoa and forest preservation try to go hand in hand

All the gold of Mbam is there, within machete reach. The forest area located about a hundred kilometers north of Yaoundé, the Cameroonian capital, is full of these orange pods which hang from the trunks and branches like large garlands. We can make out them through the foliage, from the laterite road, dotted with graders and backhoe loaders, which winds from Ntui to Tibati. The beans extracted dry on large tarpaulins spread on the ground in the villages.

Proof that the cocoa season is well underway in Africa’s third largest producing country. And, if soaring prices are to be believed, it promises to be prosperous for the country's 600,000 planters. Since the start of the harvest, which began in September, the price of a kilo of cocoa has been revised upwards seven times. According to the alert system set up by the National Cocoa and Coffee Office (ONCC) of Cameroon, on November 10 it reached the threshold of 2,000 CFA francs (3 euros).

But make no mistake: if prices are soaring, it is mainly because the quantity of beans harvested is expected to be slightly lower than the 262,112 tonnes of the previous 2022-2023 season. A decline due to the conflict which continues in the English-speaking area in the production basins of the North-West and South-West, but also “to the harmful effects of climate change”, according to the ONCC.

To grow, cocoa plants need to be watered regularly after flowering. However, this year again, “the dry season was very long,” observes Roland Ntima, a cocoa farmer in Yalongo, a cocoa village in Mbam. The rains, which stopped in mid-November, did not resume until the end of March and beginning of April. A disruption of the agricultural calendar which increasingly tests the resilience and finances of planters and pushes them to look for other sources of income.

“The farmers are under pressure”

Because, even if the drop in production is offset by the rise in prices, cocoa money runs out quickly. Roland Ntima, who sells his production during group sales which take place every Thursday, can hope to garner 5 million CFA francs (around 7,600 euros) at the end of the season. “It’s a lot,” admits the sixty-year-old, father of eleven children, “but it doesn’t last. We must repay debts, pay health and education expenses, and also take into account rising prices. As soon as the liter of fuel increases, everything becomes expensive. And it went from 750 to 950 CFA francs in one year.”

Faced with this inflation, it is tempting for cocoa farmers to increase yields by expanding plots to the detriment of the forest. “Cutting down trees provides access to fertile land and it costs less than purchasing inputs,” explains Gildas Ngueuleweu Tiwang, an agroeconomist attached to the University of Dschang. The practice is all the more encouraged as demand for cocoa, driven by competition between local processors and exporters, greatly exceeds supply. And the Cameroonian government is aiming to double production by 2030.

“Farmers are under pressure,” notes Divine Foundjem Tita, researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research and Global Agroforestry (Cifor-Icraf). Mbam is one of the priority sectors for cocoa development. It’s near Yaoundé. The road will facilitate access and penetration into production areas. Elites – civil servants and businessmen – can easily buy land. » Even if it means cutting back on the forest.

However, in an area on the edge of the savannah, like the one surrounding Yalongo, the remedy could quickly prove to be worse than the disease. Deforestation, which contributes to climate change by reducing carbon capture, worsens the effects of global warming. “Trees protect plantations. If your field has no trees, there will be more drought. And that’s already what we’re seeing,” summarizes Ousmane Mohamadou, a 32-year-old planter based in Ngila, a Hausa village, a community from the north of the country.

Crop diversification

To no longer depend solely on cocoa, the cultivation of which was introduced to Cameroon by German settlers before being extended under the French mandate, the young farmer reinforced his 5-hectare plantation with fruit trees. Especially citrus fruits. “Before, I didn’t take care of them,” he explains, “but now I treat them with insecticides and I use foliar fertilizer. In two or three years I will have lemons that I can harvest all year round, and avocados. »

This diversification is at the heart of the project launched in the area in April 2022 by the Cifor-Icraf research institute in collaboration with The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) and Telcar Cocoa Ltd, a major cocoa buyer and trader for the Cargill firm in Cameroon. . “The objective,” explains Jacques Bessengue, agroeconomist within the organization, “is to convince cocoa farmers that it is possible to improve yields and increase sources of income without cutting down trees. »

At the beginning, the researcher concedes, some resistance had to be overcome. “Some thought that we were coming to uproot plants from their plot,” he remembers. Others believed that the spaces we set up to develop fruit tree species were reserved for chefs. » But since then, the project has made progress: six community incubators have emerged and three companies have been created in the form of a common initiative group (GIC). Structures that also benefit women.

In the village of Ossembe, twenty-two of them have formed a GIC to sell njansang. This spice, very widespread in Cameroonian gastronomy, grows in the form of grains the size of a chickpea on very tall trees that thrive in cocoa plantations. “We collect it in the bush during the dry season. You have to soak it for one or two weeks then put it on the fire and finally crush it. It’s very hard work that we neglected before, but which brings us a lot of money today,” explains Scholastique Nga.

Cocoa cultivation remains overwhelmingly a male activity. “But our husbands are starting to be jealous of the njansang,” says Ms. Nga, on behalf of the women of Ossembe, who can, thanks to group sales allowed by the GIC, sell a kilo of spices for 2,000 CFA francs. Enough to spice up everyday life and free cocoa farmers a little from the variability of weather and markets.