Rubber plantations are displacing Ghana’s small cocoa farms

By Joseph Opoku Gakpo

March 28, 2018

Ghana’s cocoa farmers are being thrust into poverty as large commercial rubber plantations expand into major cocoa producing regions.

As Ghana’s primary agricultural export commodity and main cash crop, cocoa has been a major contributor to the country’s socioeconomic development for several decades. It employs about 2 million Ghanaians on farms and in processing plants and product marketing centers, among other facilities. Though the majority of cocoa farmers are small-scale producers cultivating an average of 7 acres, the crop pumps almost $2 billion annually into the Ghanaian economy.

But in recent years, the survival of the crop has been threatened, and with it the livelihoods of the farmers who depend on income from cocoa to support their families.  This is particularly true in the eastern region, the largest of the nation’s six cocoa producing regions. Here, Ghana Rubber Estate Limited (GREL) — a company in which the Ghana government holds 25 percent of the shares — has acquired more than 51,000 acres that it is developing into rubber plantations. Some of this land was already planted in cacao trees, which are being cut down long before the end of their 30-year life span.

“They destroyed the cocoa trees at a time we were not expecting,” lamented Blankson Offei, a farmer in the community of Akim Breman, where more than 2,000 acres of cocoa farms have been cleared over the last three years to make way for rubber plantations. “Now I am suffering. My children have dropped out of school. How can we survive in this town without the cocoa? It’s as if they want to drive us out of the town.”

Cocoa farmer Blankson Offei. Photo by Joseph Opoku Gakpo

He is not alone in his fears and worries.

“When I went to the farm to see what had happened, I was very troubled,” said Kwesi Acquah, another victim of the destruction. “Now I am a pauper. I had to go for a 1,500 cedis ($330) loan to take care of my sick child; how will I be able to pay back? So I am suffering.”

In Ghana, much of the land used for cocoa production belongs to local chiefs. Cocoa farmers are usually settlers who lease the land, sometimes through an informal “gentleman’s agreement,” to grow cocoa. At the end of the season, the cocoa output is divided into thirds, with the owner taking one-third and the farmer keeping the rest.

But when the large commercial farming companies come in, they acquire the land with no recourse to the cocoa farmers and proceed to destroy the trees.

“The land tenure system, it is a major problem,” explained George Adusei, a development worker with Cocoa Life, a sustainable cocoa sourcing program in the eastern region, in an interview with the Alliance for Science. “Those doing the cocoa farms are not the real owners of the land. So you might be on the land and the owner will come and say they have sold it to the rubber company. And you don’t have a say.”

The cocoa sheds at Akim Breman are now virtually empty. In 2016, cocoa production in the community was more than 160 tonnes. Last year, it dwindled to less than 100 tonnes. The youth have left the town in search of greener pastures. It’s virtually a ghost town now, inhabited mainly by elderly men and women.

Companies usually import labor from other regions to work on the rubber plantations, even as local entrepreneurial farmers are pushed out of work.

Community leaders are worried that the shift to rubber production will discourage young people from venturing into farming, even if they have no alternative sources of employment. “Research has shown that cocoa farmers are aging,” said Ohene Boafo, leader of the cocoa farmers’ co-operative union. “If the youth realize that their father’s or grandfather’s cocoa farm has been pulled down, do you think they will go in again? No.”

Now that the cocoa trees are down, families have to rely on the wood harvesting trade for their livelihoods, further harming the environment. The situation has resulted in an economic downturn in the community, with a lot of children dropping out of school.

“When my father heard of the bad news, he collapsed and we took him to the chief priest,” said Ankomah Janset, who dropped out of school because his father’s farm was destroyed. “He is not well now. Because of that I don’t have anyone to take care of me. And so I have been sitting in the house these days. So I am sad. Now all of the family has dispersed.”

The story is the same in a number of other communities throughout the country. At Asiam, in the Ayensua North District, more than 1,000 acres of cocoa farms have been destroyed under similar circumstances. At Asikasu, another community in the region, thousands of acres of cocoa farms have been destroyed. There is a general sense in these communities that cocoa production is not profitable, so land-owning chiefs are seeking alternative uses of their acreage to get more money.

In Ghana, the government organization COCOBOD is the sole body with the mandate to buy cocoa from farmers for re-sale to processors. The government usually keeps 30 percent of the cocoa earnings to support the economy and pays farmers 70 percent, with the promise of support in the form of freebies like pesticides, seedlings, fertilizers and other products.

But the farmers complain the support has not been forthcoming. “Last year, the fertilizer came, but it wasn’t sufficient. In this community, only 5 percent got the fertilizer. I didn’t get some,” said Michael Appeanteng who grows 15 acres of cocoa at Twifo Hermang in the central region.

Agricultural Minister Dr. Akoto Owusu Afriyie said the government plans to help make cocoa profitable enough so the land owners will not give the cocoa lands away. “These are issues that are of concern. But if cocoa production is profitable, then nobody will sell their lands for rubber plantation or cultivation. So we need to improve productivity so that the incomes of farmers are better; so they can live better; so they won’t look at alternative uses of their lands.”

Nana Oboadie, chairman of the Concerned Cocoa Farmers Association, is demanding an immediate government intervention to stem further destruction. “Anybody that smuggles cocoa, you arrest them. So the tree that is bearing the fruits, if someone cuts it down, why don’t you also arrest them?” he questioned.

Though only a fraction of Ghana’s 1.7 million hectares of cocoa has been converted to rubber plantations, cocoa farmers fear the practice, if left unchecked, will spread to different parts of the country and make Ghana lose its position as Africa’s number two cocoa producer. “If we don’t stop this, the destruction will continue. More cocoa farms will be lost. And Ghana will be in trouble someday,” lamented Emmanuel Nordzoh, secretary of the Asikasu Odumase cocoa farmers’ association.

The effect of this activity is yet to be fully felt. Over the last five years, cocoa production levels have been steady, between 700 and 900 thousand metric tonnes annually. But a reduction in production could have devastating consequence for Ghana’s economy, officials said. “Revenue for roads, scholarships, employment and even our international reputation as producers of cocoa will go down,” said Kwabena Ohemeng Tinyase, a member of Parliament’s Agriculture Committee.

Deputy Employment and Labor Minister Bright Wereko Brobby agreed. “If the trend becomes like this, it is a threat to the growth of our nation generally. Because we depend on cocoa for education, health and so on. So it should abe a source of concern,” he told the Alliance for Science.