Poor use of fertiliser in cocoa, cassava and oil palm farming, has resulted in widespread deforestation and degradation of West Africa's tropical forest area, a new study by researchers at the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), has revealed.
Cocoa production in West Africa is an important commercial sector and a source of livelihoods for about two million households in the region. For the last 20 years Côte d'Ivoire has been the largest producer both in terms of output and numbers of producers, followed by Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon; with these four countries now accounting for 70 per cent of global cocoa supply.
According to the study, cocoa production in West Africa's Guinean Rainforest region doubled between 1987 and 2007, but most of this increase was fuelled by clearing forest areas resulting in large losses of biodiversity and high carbon emissions.
The Guinean Rainforest (GRF) of West Africa, identified over 20 years ago as a global biodiversity hotspot, had reduced to 113,000 km2 at the start of the new millennium, which was 18 per cent of its original area, according to the report.
The principal driver of this environmental change has been the expansion of low-input smallholder agriculture that depends on environmentally destructive practices like slash-and-burn and land clearing.
Researchers at IITA found that increasing fertiliser use on cocoa-timber farms would have spared roughly two million hectares of tropical forest from being cleared or severely degraded.
The study suggests that farmers could have achieved the same outputs without rampant deforestation through the intensified use of fertiliser and agrochemicals coupled with improved crop husbandry.
According to IITA, by doing so farmers would have doubled their incomes and helped to avoid deforestation and degradation on 2.1 million hectares and in the process, this would have generated a value of over 1,600 million dollars on 1.3 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions that would not have come from deforestation.
The findings should be taken into consideration in discussions around efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation, say researchers. Instead of considering complicated strategies involving monetary or in-kind transfers to farmers or communities for altering their land use behaviour, REDD funds could be used to incentivise and promote agricultural intensification efforts that would lead to higher rural incomes, greater food security, and avoided emissions through the achievement of higher agricultural yields.
The limited use of fertiliser in the GRF (less than 4 kg of total nutrients per ha) may have been logical in 1960, when West African populations were only 25 per cent of today's levels and forest land was still relatively abundant.
That choice is no longer tenable in a context where only 15 to 20 per cent of the GRF remains. There are no longer any frontier forests in West Africa for future generations to exploit. Strategies to reduce deforestation and conserve biodiversity in West Africa must focus on transforming agricultural practices from traditional to modern science based methods.