For sustainable cacao farming in Colombia, going organic is not necessarily the only good answer
by Maria Eliza Villarino
If there’s one word that encapsulates Colombia, it is diversity. You see that in its people, you see that in its climate, and you even see that in the way farmers cultivate cacao.
As noted in an analysis on the opportunities emerging from cacao production to contribute toward peace conducted by CIAT and Purdue University, cacao farmers in Colombia come in different forms. Some members of the International Climate Initiative (IKI)-funded Sustainable Land Use System (SLUS) Project team saw this reality for themselves when they recently visited cacao-growing areas in the departments of Caquetá and Cesar.
“There are many different types of cacao farmers in Colombia, and when I say ‘types,’ they could relate to the size of their farms and the resources they have, including labor. And that for sure would have an impact on whether or not they would adopt land uses that contribute toward sustainable cacao farming for climate change mitigation and peacebuilding,” said Augusto Castro-Núñez, who leads the SLUS Project and was part of the field visit delegation.
The visit aims to help the project team determine promising sustainable land use systems in the two Colombian departments. Both affected by conflict, Caquetá and Cesar are where the government and its development partners are promoting the cultivation of cacao in a bid to end coca leaf farming, which evidence suggests has ties to the conflict and deforestation in the country.
In both Caquetá and Cesar, the project team delegation found that cacao producers practice diversified farming: They cultivate various crops and have livestock; cacao, thus, is just one of their sources of income.
What that means is that farmers have to decide how to split their time and resources between their crops, and so intensifying and adopting sustainable cacao production is not necessarily an obvious choice, despite the promise of support from the government and its development partners.
“One farmer told us that more labor invested in one crop means lower productivity by others, so, there’s that trade-off,” Castro-Núñez said, adding that some of the farmers prefer to also actively participate and even take leadership roles in producers’ associations.
Apart from farmers’ preference for diversified farming, the conditions in the two departments contrast.
In Caquetá, it’s cloudy and it rains for most of the year. So, shade, which is necessary for cacao plants to develop, is plentiful. Even so, there is a push to plant more shade trees, which is leading to concern of a possible shade overkill – a situation that leads to increased humidity and subsequently greater vulnerability of cacao plants to diseases and pests.
“It’s important to take into account the biophysical conditions of the locality. Most research says, ‘no, you need to have a lot of shade,’ even though there’s sufficient shade available locally,” said Miguel Romero Sánchez, a research associate for CIAT’s Agroecosystems and Sustainable Landscapes research area and who also took part in the field visit.
Some cacao producers in Caquetá practice organic farming and, as such, use fertilizers made from their own farms. They do this to get certified, which theoretically would lead to increased income due to higher prices that certified cacao beans command compared to their uncertified counterparts. They also target selling their cacao beans abroad.
The process of getting certified, with its long list of requirements, though, can be tedious, prompting some farmers to abandon the process. In addition, using organic fertilizer means yields will go down in the short term. That could make the widespread adoption of organic cacao farming a challenge, according to Romero.
Sunny in Cesar
Meanwhile, in Cesar, there’s a lot more sun, and rains are not as frequent compared to Caquetá. So, the local government and Fedecacao (National Cacao Producers Association) are supporting efforts to boost irrigation to ensure all cacao-producing areas have enough water to increase production in these areas.
Although aware of the environment impact of using synthetic fertilizers, most farmers in Cesar prefer them because their aim is to increase yields, Romero noted. He added that the presence of Fedecacao indicates that cacao farming in Cesar is more organized compared to Caquetá.
Most farmers in Cesar, Castro-Núñez observed, target producing cacao for the domestic market, which has fewer quality requirements, instead of overseas. Colombians are massive consumers of chocolate drinks and bars, and domestic demand is strong and steady. That means a sure market for cacao beans.
The different preferences by and conditions faced by farmers require further study to determine which sustainable land use system would best suit cacao producers in the two Colombian departments. Castro-Núñez said a methodology already exists to understand the factors why farmers adopt certain practices or not; what the SLUS Project team will do is to develop a conceptual model from that methodology and do a survey to validate that model. And, based on those factors, develop value chain upgrading strategies and business models to facilitate the adoption of cacao farming systems that contribute toward climate change mitigation and peacebuilding.
“The lesson for me is that not everything is for everyone: if we’re looking to promote organic cacao or any particular farming system for everyone, it’s not going to work,” Castro-Núñez said. “There’s no such thing as one-size-fits all when it comes to sustainable land use system; it still depends on the context.”
The SLUS Project aims to contribute toward reducing land-based greenhouse gas emissions, conserving forest, restoring degraded landscapes, and improving rural livelihoods while stimulating peacebuilding in rural Colombia. It is part of the International Climate Initiative (IKI). The Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) supports this initiative on the basis of a decision adopted by the German Bundestag. The SLUS Project is implemented by CIAT, together with the Centre for Research on Sustainable Agriculture (CIPAV), Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research, and Thünen-Institut.