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Mar 8, 2023 11:59:21 AM7 min read

Unlocking Sustainable Cocoa Production: How Agroforestry Systems are Key to Achieve Our Triple Impact Model

By Andrea Molina Luker Chocolate’s Regional Sustainability Coordinator 

Since 1906, Luker Chocolate has been dedicated to the sustainable development of the Colombian cocoa industry and its rural communities. This is framed in a triple impact vision: the communities' economic, social and environmental well-being. We firmly believe that taking a triple-impact approach can transform cocoa-growing territories while strengthening our business model. Here’s where agroforestry systems help farmers to do so.

By integrating trees with crops, agroforestry systems can help conserve soil, water, and biodiversity while providing additional income streams for farmers.

Take a closer look at this approach that contributes to soil health and its relationship with our triple impact model in the menu below.

Tackling cocoa’s environmental challenge

The degradation of ecosystems and loss of life forms throughout the planet is often associated with farming and grazing activities. In Colombia, logging, ranching, and illicit mining are the main accelerators that cause loss of woodland and jungle; however, in the last few decades, soil degradation has become a pressing global concern. 

One-third of the world’s soils are already degraded due to increased unsustainable human activity. If the current rate continues, the FAO predicts that up to 90% of the world’s soil could become degraded by 2050.

Soil erosion has a major impact on its surrounding environment. It reduces soil health and productivity by removing the highly-fertile topsoil and leaving the rest. It can also lead to lower biodiversity and hydrogeological risks such as landslides or floods. Historically, cocoa farming has been a major contributor to soil erosion due to deforestation, but this is not our case.

Good agricultural practices on existing farmland can ensure a sustainable cocoa supply chain; one such method is agroforestry systems. 

But, what is agroforestry?

An agroforestry system is a form of land management that deliberately integrates trees (forestry) with livestock and crops (agriculture) on the same plot of land. The aim is to move away from monocropping and promote more efficient use of resources. It has many advantages, including an increase in biodiversity, water flow management and a reduction of soil erosion.

We are committed to being a carbon-neutral company by 2030. One of the ways we are working towards this is by implementing agroforestry systems on all Luker farms and encouraging its adoption with the small farmers that represent 95% of our cacao sourcing.

"We envision that promoting agroforestry systems in Colombia is a way to live the triple impact. "

Andrea Molina, Luker Chocolate’s Regional Sustainability Coordinator.

This sustainable farming method can help maintain a balance with the environment and improve productivity and economic development, which can lead to positive social well-being within the rural communities surrounding the farms.

How is agroforestry a way to live our triple impact model?

Our sustainability plan, “The Chocolate Dream”, has three objectives: increase the cocoa family income, strengthen social well-being in cocoa-growing communities and work in balance with the environment.  

“With the triple impact model, we want employees and cocoa producers to be aware of the importance of best practices and their direct effect on their ecosystems, families, and communities. To ensure the sustainable production of cocoa, our team promotes the best practices of agroforestry, including how it can lead to better nutrition, higher production, food security and biological pest control.  This motivates farmers to protect their farms' soils, forests, and biodiversity, " says Andrea Molina, Regional Sustainability Coordinator.

How does agroforestry help the environment?

Agroforestry is an agricultural system that integrates trees and crops on the same land, offering numerous environmental benefits. Here are some of the ways agroforestry helps the environment:

    1. Biodiversity conservation: Trees provide habitat for many species, and combining trees with crops creates a more diverse ecosystem that supports a broader range of flora and fauna.

    1. Soil conservation: Trees help to stabilize soil and reduce erosion, which can help to prevent soil degradation and nutrient loss.

    1. Carbon sequestration: Trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which helps to mitigate climate change by reducing the number of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    1. Water conservation: Trees can help reduce soil moisture loss, improve water infiltration, and reduce runoff, improving water resource conservation.

    1. Nutrient cycling: Trees help cycle nutrients by extracting them from deep soil layers and returning them to the surface through leaf fall and decomposition, improving soil fertility and supporting crop growth.

In the case of cocoa agroforestry systems, the integration of shade trees with cocoa crops can provide additional benefits such as reducing pest and disease outbreaks, improving soil health, diversifying farmer income, securing household food and nutrition needs, and improving the quality of cocoa beans. Overall, agroforestry is a sustainable farming practice that can help maintain and enhance the environment's health while supporting small farmers' livelihoods.

Examples of Agroforestry Systems:

Several agroforestry systems have been developed and implemented in cocoa-producing regions. Here are some examples:

agro forestry with cocoa and broccoli
Agro forestry with cocoa and broccoli

These are some of the types of agroforestry systems:

    1. Shade-grown cocoa: In this system, cocoa trees grow under a canopy of shade trees. The shade trees provide benefits such as reducing soil temperature, increasing soil moisture, and providing habitat for beneficial insects and other wildlife. Shade-grown cocoa is a traditional practice used for centuries in many cocoa-producing regions.

    1. Alley cropping: In this system, rows of cocoa trees are alternated with rows of nitrogen-fixing trees or other crops such as bananas or plantains. The nitrogen-fixing trees or crops provide nutrients to the soil, improving the growth and yield of cocoa trees.

    1. Multi-story cropping: In this system, multiple layers of crops and trees are grown together. For example, cocoa trees can be grown under a canopy of shade trees, with additional crops such as yams or cassava grown underneath the cocoa trees. This system can provide various benefits, such as improving soil health, increasing crop diversity, and providing additional income streams for farmers.

    1. Inga alley cropping: In this system, Inga trees are planted in alleys between rows of cocoa trees. The Inga trees provide nitrogen to the soil and can be pruned to provide mulch and organic matter for the cocoa trees. This system has been used successfully in Latin America to improve cocoa yields and soil health.

agro forestry with cocoa and vegetables
Agroforestry with cacao and different vegetables

Overall, these agroforestry systems can help improve cocoa production's sustainability by providing various benefits, such as soil conservation, biodiversity conservation, and climate change mitigation.

How are we implementing agroforestry?

In 2011 we decided to put this method into practice. Our first agroforestry project was based at Luker’s El Rosario farm in Necoclí. With 557 hectares planted, what was once a barren area of land used for cattle grazing, became an area of rich biodiversity. El Rosario is an example of how we can promote reforestation and protect biodiversity through cocoa. Today, El Rosario is home to 480,000 cocoa trees from 8 varieties and 329 species of animals and birds.

We’ve since used this as our “anchor crop model” and have gone on to create two more Luker’s farms: El Paraiso in Casanare with 817 hectares and La Escalereta in Huila with 47 hectares. All of them are successful agroforestry farms in different regions of Colombia, where we share best practices with farmers that are relevant to their land and communities. 

Using our chocolate as a tool for change, we have education projects with small farmers in the surrounding farms to empower them to implement their own agroforestry systems. One example is our “Guardians of the Tropical Dry Forest” project in Huila, a project we started in 2022. To date, we have involved more than 73 cocoa producers in becoming active actors in environmental care and reforestation. To support the agroecosystem and production, we encourage cocoa producers to grow other crop species like bananas and fruit trees amid their cocoa crops and native forest species. 

As part of our wider carbon commitments, we are also measuring and certifying the carbon captured by the cocoa plantations and using these carbon credits to compensate for our wider company emissions. We are carbon neutral in scopes 1 and 2.

The future of a sustainable chocolate industry

Our main goal is to partner with brands and companies around the world who are deeply committed to quality and sustainability to develop gourmet chocolates and create shared value at origin. 

“Most cocoa crops are managed by family groups, so we are looking for our cocoa growers - from the youngest to the oldest - to learn the positive effects that these actions bring to the community. This will allow us to have sustainable and good quality cocoa, with future generations continuing to cultivate, protect, and enjoy the production of this marvellous fruit”, says Molina.

This would not be possible without the support of our clients and partners who form part of The Chocolate Dream - if you are interested in taking a “hands-on” approach to sustainability, supporting cocoa-growing communities and joining us on the objective of using chocolate as a tool for change, get in touch!