Are chocolates forever?

For World Environment Day, a story of biodiversity and globalization in the ancient Asante Kingdom of Ghana

Ghana is one of the world's most important cocoa producers. Ahtziri Gonzalez, CIFOR

By His Royal Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, King of the Asante Kingdom, Ghana and Dr. Musonda Mumba, Chair, Global Partnership on Forest and Landscape Restoration (GPFLR) and Chief, Terrestrial Ecosystems Unit, UN Environment, Kenya. 

With the easing of COVID-19 lockdowns across the globe, people shall again begin visiting shops to purchase gifts for loved ones. No doubt chocolate delicacies will be part of the presents. Although they can hardly be considered an essential good for consumers, the production of cocoa and chocolate is vital to the livelihoods of millions of people in West Africa. It is at the center of a global multi-billion-dollar industry, and much of the cocoa that feeds this industry originates from trees growing in the Ancient Kingdom of Asante in Ghana. But this source of wealth is under threat.

This “Gold of the Tree” is under threat due to climate change, artisanal gold mining, deforestation and plant disease. Threats to the cocoa industry in turn undermine livelihoods of over 800,000 families who cultivate on 1.69 million hectares of land and plots that average 2-3 hectares. They further weaken cultural traditions and risk the integrity of entire ecosystems. 

Communities continue to contend with the complexities of land tenure and use. The demand for land for commercial agriculture, industrialization and mining has been particularly problematic in Ghana. With the increase of Chinese investment in the country has come the so-called Sino-Africa dynamic. The Chinese migrants who engage in artisanal gold mining on land previously used for cocoa cultivation adds to the myriad of threats. Mining has led to high levels of pollution in the landscape, and in water bodies in particular, with terrible impacts. On the other hand, there is evidence from recent studies that cocoa farmers are seeing more diseases affect their crop than before, due to climate change.

This all serves to compromise land availability, an issue compounded further by deforestation and land degradation. 

His Royal Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, King of the Asante Kingdom, Ghana. Courtesy of Manhyia Palace Pictures
His Royal Majesty Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, King of the Asante Kingdom, Ghana. Courtesy of Manhyia Palace Pictures

As the world marks World Environment Day (WED) on 5 June, we in the Kingdom are determined to save its cocoa trees and the rich biodiversity that has historically benefited our people. As a kingdom, our aim is to learn from other Kingdoms within and beyond Ghana on restoration, such as the Kingdom of Buganda (in Uganda). 

Over the years, we have noticed how environmental degradation has impaired the functioning of both ecological and cultural systems. For our Kingdom, the two are intricately connected like many traditional and Indigenous communities across Africa and other parts of the world. 

Our Kingdom has gone a step further and last July started the Asante Kingdom Landscape Restoration Initiative. Its focus is to raise awareness on the threats of land degradation and call all communities to action to manage their lands in a sustainable manner.

Hence, the initiative calls for the incorporation of traditional ecological knowledge and practices of Indigenous peoples into contemporary restoration to enhance ecosystem restoration. The plan is to enhance restoration, by embarking on restoring of some of the agroecological zones where cocoa and other trees as well as plant 100 million trees by 2025. 

Restoration around Lake Bosomtwe, Ghana’s only natural lake that was designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a Biosphere Reserve, has commenced. We aim to ensure that at least 2.5 million trees are planted around this lake so that the ecological and cultural functions continue. 

These actions by our Kingdom underscore recent findings that lands managed by traditional, local and Indigenous peoples are among the least degraded in the world. Some 35 percent of these ecosystems are mainly forested landscapes. Community-based institutions are often more successful than government policies or institutions (like formal protected areas) simply because they are closer to the ground and respond more quickly to changes or threats. 

Land degradation in Ghana has been driven by mining and other industrial and development activities. Courtesy of Ghana Cocobod
Land degradation in Ghana has been driven by mining and other industrial and development activities. Courtesy of Cocoa Board

We have long treasured our natural riches, and as such, biodiversity has been as a lifeline for the Kingdom for hundreds of years sustaining communities. Deemed a “Food of the Gods” in Ancient Mayan culture, Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) has been documented within the kingdom from as early as the 17th century, a commodity it sold to traders coming from far and wide. Its medicinal properties such as high anti-oxidants are believed to prevent chronic diseases. Today, cocoa is predominantly grown by smallholder farmers, most of them women.

Traditional and Indigenous people must collaborate with and get the support of not only their national governments but also private sector actors to conserve their lands and cultures. For the Asante, this means investments from both in developing infrastructure for factories and innovation around climate smart and sustainable agriculture. 

As we navigate a new COVID-19 world and mark WED, we must be reminded that our existence lies on our dependence on nature. As such we acknowledge, champion and welcome the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration (2021-2030) as an opportunity for non-state actors such as our Kingdom to play their part. 

Our Kingdom sees restoration of landscapes as an opportunity for not only protecting its cocoa tradition but also for helping it promote job creation for its youth and women. The 2020 WED theme is “Time For Nature,” and as such, inter-generational exchange of knowledge and cultural values on the “Gold of the Tree’ are key.

This way, chocolates may be forever. 

Land degradation has led to water scarcity and agricultural challenges in Ghana. Courtesy of Ghana Cocobod
Land degradation has led to water scarcity and agricultural challenges in Ghana. Courtesy of Ghana Cocoa Board

Leave a Reply