Cocoa - the sweet way out of poverty
  • | | January 20, 2010 11:50 AM

In a DTiNews exclusive, Merete Jensen uncovers a way out of poverty sure to leave a good taste in farmers mouths.

Slash and burn, deforestation and poaching has for years been the way forward for poor cashew farmers in the buffer zone of the Cat Tien National Park. Now they have found that cocoa offers a sweet solution to their problems.

Nguyen Hong Quyen looks out over the valley from his small, hilly patch of arable land. Despite munching buffaloes and paddy as far as the eyes can see, things are not as idyllic as they might seem.

This once fertile land has become scorched; the heat is overwhelming and the paddy has turned yellow without yielding much harvest. The enormous stump of a tree is further evidence of a long gone time of soothing shade.

Nguyen Hong Quyen admits that this whole area was covered with wild and dense rain-forest only a few decades back and concedes that the change of weather, observed as a rise in temperature as well as less downpour and unpredictable rain, is most likely due to years of widespread slash and burn practises from local farmers such as himself.

Nguyen Hong Quyen on his hill side patch of arable land.

The 53 year old farmer does, however, maintain that neither he nor other poor farmers in the area have had any choice but to cut down forest in order to earn an income from the timber, to secure firewood and to clear land for farming in order to make a livelihood.

“We are poor, uneducated farmers. How can we put rice in our bowls if we don’t have any land for farming? No-one told us about the consequences of cutting down the forest,” he exclaims with a hint of hopelessness, raised shoulders and outstretched arms.

A good deal of cashew trees still cling to the steep hill between Nguyen Hong Quyen’s house and his two hectare paddy field, but owing to the exhausted soil and the lack of rain in addition to low investment and application of poor cultivation management practices, the yield is modest. Due to low world market prices of cashew nuts, Nguyen Hong Quyen’s income from the trees was a meagre 14 million VND last year. Along with two cows and five pigs for rearing, the cashews constitute the entire income for the family of seven.

Nguyen Hong Quyen tends to one of his 200 small cocoa trees. They hold the family's future.

And yet the future looks … if not exactly bright; then at least a little sweeter.

With the practical and financial help of the World Widelife Fund for Nature (WWF), Nguyen Hong Quyen has recently planted 200 young cocoa trees as well as 1.5 hectares of mixed forest.

“Within 2-3 years the cocoa-trees will yield a harvest, but the forest can only be harvested in 20-30 years. It is an investment for my children,” he explains, adding that hopefully in the meantime the forest will also gather and generate much needed humidity to the parched soil.

By cutting down the old forest, Nguyen Hong Quyen and his wife Nguyen Thi Chin no longer enjoy the shade and moisture of big trees.

While the per-capita income in Cat Tien District bordering the Cat Tien National Park in Lam Dong Province is just 350 US dollars, Pham Minh Thao of WWF-Vietnam points to the seemingly insatiable international demand for cocoa - and the rising world marked prices as one prerequisite for encouraging farmers to plant cocoa saplings. Another persuading factor is that when planted in between cashew-trees, the cocoa provides valuable fertilizer to the otherwise degraded soil, while their roots keep top soil from eroding down the highly sloped hill-sides that constitute 75 percent of farming land in the area. Providing farmers a source of income without them being forced to clear forest for land is another imperative advantage of the crop.

While describing traditional slash and burn farming practices as ‘backward’ and ‘unsustainable’, along with mentioning local farmers conservatism among the main challenges to the project, Pham Minh Thao points to the importance of motivating farmers to change their way. She emphasizes that WWF has invested in saplings for Mr. Nguyen’s land in order to use it as a demonstration plot for other local farmers to take inspiration and knowledge from.

Highlighting a combination of cashew, cocoa and agro-forestry as the ideal livelihood for farmers in the hilly Cat Tien buffer zone, Pham Minh Thao has no doubt that cocoa will provide a crucial option for farmers to earn income:
“Previous experiences with cocoa were bad, because of a failure to sell the crop, but we help to find buyers who were willing to buy even small quantities to encourage farmers,” she explains, adding that world market prices are going up.
“A 1000 dollar investment in cocoa saplings can gain a yield for the farmers after 2-3 years of 6000 dollars,” she says.

Almost ripe cocoa beans on a 3 year old tree. Persistent international demand has pushed up prices, and farmers are increasingly relying on the crop.

While cashew, which for years was hailed as the wonder crop of Vietnamese farmers, turned their soil acidic and their future sour, the sweet cocoa seems ready to provide a win-win situation, where the soil obtains nutrition and farmers diversify their crops to become less dependent on external factors such as weather conditions or international supply and demand playing havoc with prices.

By providing farmers with the prospect of a stable income and an alternative to traditional slash and burn practices to be able to farm on fertile soil, the WWF-supported cocoa-saplings on Nguyen Hong Quyen and other local farmers’ sloppy hill-sides will also help ease the pressure on the unique habitat in and around the Cat Tien National park.

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