© Patrick Rohr

Building Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes in Northern Madagascar

BY: Maya Wolfensberger, Mark Freudenberger - 03. April 2024
© Patrick Rohr

Global cocoa prices are hitting record highs, driven up by poor harvests in West Africa, which produces the bulk of global supply. Though less than one percent of the world's cocoa originates in Madagascar, the country produces unique cocoa that is highly valued by craft chocolate producers and increasingly in demand from the global cocoa market. But land degradation, soil erosion and unsustainable agricultural practices are affecting Madagascar’s cocoa production. Climate change is aggravating the situation. Small farmers are in a precarious situation and have been forced to expand into new areas, clearing tropical forests to plant new commodity and food crops. Halting this vicious cycle is one of the objectives of the “Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes” project in the Sambirano watershed in northwestern Madagascar, where 90% of the country’s cocoa is produced.

The landscape initiative facilitated by Helvetas is supported by a broad coalition of private sector partners, cocoa cooperatives, regional authorities, and the local communities. As an important sourcing region for the supply of high-quality cocoa for Switzerland, the Sambirano Valley is a place where an integrated environmental governance and rural development landscape approach is supported by the Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa (SWISSCO), which is co-financed by the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). A broad range of private sector partners sourcing cocoa from the Sambirano region are supporting the landscape project.

Monitoring deforestation in the Sambirano Valley

To monitor and better understand the deforestation dynamics of the region, the project established a landscape-level monitoring, evaluation and learning mechanism using satellite imagery and geographic information systems with support of  the Centre of Development (CDE) of the University of Bern. The Sambirano Valley is bordered by mountain ranges that encompass tropical forests with an exceptional biodiversity that plays a critical role in the hydrological cycles of the landscape. Multiple deforestation drivers are threatening this unique ecosystem. While land clearing for upland rice cultivation and tree cutting for charcoal production are the central drivers of deforestation, cacao production is also a contributing factor. In-migration of laborers from other parts of Madagascar attracted by the cocoa economy clear adjoining land for household food production. Increasingly, this is also happening on the more remote slopes of adjoining mountainous protected areas. Alarmingly, these areas are threatened from forest clearing for the flourishing but illegal marijuana economy.  The baseline conducted by CDE shows that between 2000 and 2020, the surrounding protected areas of Tsaratanana and Manongarivo have lost 20% and 13 % of their forest cover, respectively.

Addressing these direct and underlying drivers of deforestation, as well as climate change’s impacts on the cocoa economy, requires a comprehensive response that tackles various dimensions instead of singular value chain interventions. This is where the landscape approach comes in.

Applying the landscape approach

The landscape approach is an overarching resource governance framework that facilitates the coordination and reinforcement of synergies between state, private sector and civil society entities, guided by a shared landscape management plan. This spatial approach hinges on a governance structure for a well-defined landscape, like a watershed, that empowers stakeholders of all types to voice their often-divergent concerns, interests and priorities.  

In the Sambirano Valley watershed, the Comité de Gestion de Bassin Versant Sambirano (COGEBS) was set up by the Diana region as a legally recognized platform for diverse interest groups to negotiate common goals around a mutually shared vision for the future of the environment and peoples of the valley.

Multi-stakeholder engagement for a climate-resilient landscape

During the first phase of the Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project from 2020-2022, Helvetas and its partner organizations worked closely with the Diana region and multiple stakeholders within the Sambirano Valley watershed to prepare a common vision for the future of the landscape through a consultative process. Thanks to an in-depth and participatory landscape assessment conducted by the Earthworm Foundation, priority zones for conservation, the protection of carbon stock assets, and ecological restoration were identified. Selected priorities have been subsequently incorporated into community-level land use plans that guide coordinated landscape restoration interventions.

Building on these initial achievements, the new phase of the Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project (2023-2027) will facilitate the expansion of local stakeholder engagement in the landscape by:  

  • Conserving the key ecosystem functions in the landscape through nature-based interventions like reforestation, agroforestry and anti-erosion practices in priority zones.
  • Reducing carbon emissions from deforestation by promoting the massive use of Gold Standard certified efficient cooking stoves, thereby saving up to 75,000 metrics tons of CO₂ emissions.
  • Improving the livelihood conditions of cocoa farmers through diversified income generation and supporting a sector-wide adoption of climate-resilient farming practices, reaching over 5,000 cocoa farmers.
  • Creating incentives to maintain sustainably managed cocoa plantations by expanding farmers’ access to land titles and land certificates.

Even though the landscape approach is in its infancy in the Sambirano Valley, tangible results are beginning to emerge. In the spirit of adaptive management, now is the time to identify initial lessons learned, as detailed in the sections below.

A nascent and fragile landscape governance structure

The reconciliation of forest conservation priorities at the headwaters of the Sambirano Valley with the diverse agricultural practices of its rural populations is the foundational reason that platforms like the COGEBS are essential for generating inclusive social dialogue among multiple actors. Despite the conceptual strength of the landscape approach, the COGEBS confronts many challenges with fostering agreement among multiple stakeholders around a common vision for the future of the Sambirano Valley.

Moreover, the lack of adequate financing for the COGEBS to plan and carry out programs is a major challenge. In the long run it is key that the program and operational costs of these governance structures are financed by regionally available public and private resources and do not rely on donor funding. A challenge to this is that Madagascar remains a highly centralized country with very few governance powers devolved to the local level. Continued efforts to mobilize long-term financing sources for the COGEBS will be key.

EUDR threats to smallholder cacao production

The new European Union law on deforestation-free products (EUDR), which is coming into effect in January 2025, will require full traceability in the cacao, coffee, palm oil, beef, wood and rubber sectors as well as in derived products like chocolate. Under the regulation, products and commodities linked to deforestation after December 31, 2020, are not permitted in European Union markets.

In Madagascar, where the cocoa supply chain is generally poorly organized and a large share of smallholder farmers are not traceable, the short adaptation and preparation period for EUDR may hurt smallholders due to their limited capacity to comply with the regulation. Sourcing companies need to put in place strong traceability systems; otherwise, smallholders risk losing access to the EU supply chain.

The Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project will help to raise awareness among smallholder farmers of the new traceability requirements to ensure EU market access for this group. The project will also continue to inform smallholder farmers of ways to acquire land titles and land certificates, which is one of several instruments documenting the source of cacao to specific and verifiable land parcels. This will address the reluctance of farmers to provide geographical coordinates to their lands, which is hampering the roll-out of traceability schemes.

Multiple drivers of deforestation at various scales

Even if cacao traceability frameworks are set up in the Sambirano Valley, the root causes of deforestation outside of cocoa plots cannot be addressed solely by adherence to the EUDR regulations.  Many other factors drive deforestation in different parts of the valley. Slash-and-burn agriculture may be expanding into the headwaters of the Sambirano Valley because migrant and resident farmers cannot access land for food production due to lands taken up decades ago by cacao production. In-migration from the south of Madagascar of people looking to work in the cacao sector also contributes to the expansion of charcoal production, which serves for many as a secondary income and is derived from clearing forests both within and outside of protected areas.

The promotion and adoption of agroforestry practices are thus essential for restoring tree cover, while also contributing to cash and food crop production. The widespread adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices will go a long way towards restoring the hydrological functions of the Sambirano Valley, which is the foundation of a vibrant cacao sector. Resilience to climate change hinges on the growth of rural incomes, in part supported by the export of cacao, but it must be achieved through appropriate agricultural and land use practices.  

Deforestation and the threat of the expanding marijuana economy

The expanding cannabis sector, which is situated in the protected areas of the headwaters of the Sambirano river, is a major threat to the ecosystem health of the Sambirano Valley and, ultimately, the cocoa economy. Deforestation rates are particularly alarming in the Réserve Naturelle of Tsaratanana and the Réserve Speciale of Manongarivo, both of which are protected areas under the management of the Madagascar National Parks.

Considered security “red zones” by even the military and police, the national park authorities responsible for the Tsaratanana protected area cannot intervene for fear of well-armed cannabis growers and their allies. The forest resources regulating the hydrological functions of the Sambirano Valley are thus largely defenseless against the incursions of marijuana growers, but also those practicing other forms of slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal production. Funding shortfalls for the Madagascar National Parks severely hamper its ability to protect and work with surrounding farming communities to manage the remaining blocks of intact forests in the highlands of the Sambirano Valley. Further efforts to mobilize funding for forest conservation and community engagement are therefore key to preserving the ecosystem of the entire Sambirano Valley landscape.

Moving forward

Despite the myriad of challenges facing Madagascar's cocoa sector and the Sambirano Valley landscape, significant progress has been made through the Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project. The project showcases the power of integrated landscape governance in addressing complex environmental and socio-economic issues.

While challenges persist, the emergence of tangible results such as the planting of 40,000 trees in jointly defined areas, the development of trainings in agroforestry and climate-smart agriculture that will be available through different private sector partners, and the establishment of a common monitoring framework demonstrate the efficacy of the landscape approach. In the absence of the landscape governance approach, the diverse interest groups in the Sambirano Valley would be largely operating in siloed and uncoordinated ways. As we navigate these complexities, continued investment in landscape governance, sustainable agriculture and conservation efforts will be crucial. Together, we can safeguard the unique ecosystems of the Sambirano Valley, ensure the prosperity of local communities, and contribute to a more resilient and sustainable cocoa economy.

About the Authors

Maya Wolfensberger is Helvetas’ Senior Advisor for Climate Change and advises projects with a focus on low carbon development and climate finance. She has a leading role in advising the Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project thematically and in coordinating the multistakeholder process with private sector partners.

Mark Freudenberger has over 30 years of experience designing, implementing, evaluating and providing strategic direction to natural resource programs across the Global South, including many years in Madagascar. He supports the Climate-Resilient Cocoa Landscapes project as the lead consultant on land tenure.

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