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From the cocoa fields of Ghana, Alex Morgan – senior manager of sustainable value chains for the Rainforest Alliance’s agriculture program in the US– writes about the beginnings of a conservation initiative that will benefit local people, wildlife, economies and the environment.

Ankasa National Park is an island oasis amidst degraded ecosystems and agricultural landscapes in the Western region of Ghana, where 55 percent of the country’s cocoa is now grown. Inside the park, forest elephants, leopards, 600 species of butterflies and 300 species of birds make their homes. Outside the park’s boundaries, much of the country’s biodiversity-rich forest has been lost to logging and conversion to palm oil and rubber.

Today, Eric Servat (manager of the Rainforest Alliance’s cocoa program), Christian Mensah (the Rainforest Alliance’s representative in Ghana through Agro-Eco), Arthur Steiner (from Läderach Chocolate), Yaw Osei-Owusu and Ernastina Doku-Mafo (both from Ghana’s Conservation Alliance), and I traveled to the borders of Ankasa National Park to visit an area where a new project will emerge through a Rainforest Alliance and Conservation Alliance partnership. The project will be situated about two hours north of Axim, on the Atlantic coast of Ghana where rain is a frequent and generous visitor. It will involve work with six communities outside the park, using cocoa to provide sustainable livelihoods for farmers and help restore a forest buffer around the national park.

With sunny skies and a nice breeze, the day was off to a good start. An hour and a half into our drive, however, the road deteriorated and the red clay street turned into a series of channels, deep ruts and puddles the size of Olympic swimming pools. Though it hadn’t rained for three days, the road was a mess and we were stopped in our tracks by a local truck bogged down in 18 inches of mud. With eight men working to dislodge the truck and still no movement, it was clear it wasn’t going anywhere. Eventually, we abandoned the truck and set off on foot.

Three of us were coming from fall climates, and we were no match for the scorching sun and oppressive heat. We hadn’t planned to walk the next 3 to 5 miles, dotted with hills and heavily logged fields, but we were committed to meeting the dedicated farmers who were taking part of their day off to meet with us.

Embarrassingly, we were not prepared for the heat, sun or isolation; we were without water, sunscreen, food or hats. But the moment we finally arrived at the first farm, the farmers welcomed us with a dozen or so coconuts and offered us shade under the cocoa trees. It was truly a delight and representative of the generous spirit and hospitality displayed by the farmers we work with across the globe.

Many of the farmers in this area are new to cocoa. They are planting new cocoa trees in landscapes that have been logged and are in the first phase of transition from degradation. Musumba trees, Yaw told us, are one of the first species to populate an area that has been severely degraded. In order to ensure these lands are protected and provide important environmental value by acting as buffers, the farmers and communities must gain sustainable livelihoods from farming crops other than oil palm or rubber. That’s where cocoa comes in; it’s an agro-forestry crop that can grow in unison with native tree species and under a canopy of shade trees, providing good incomes for local community members when farmed effectively.

Through the project’s training program, the participating farmers will learn how to eradicate black pod disease by separating and burying infected cocoa pods, how to limit agrochemical usage, the dangers of child labor and how to restore the environment of the region by adopting simple sustainable practices on their own farms.

These young farmers were eager to share their stores and excited to work with community trainers to improve their practices and see the fruits of the labor. While they are just beginning with the training program, their eagerness, dedication and hard work will undoubtedly lead to a significant impact on the ground. In addition, it will provide considerable long-term environmental value, as their farms will serve as important buffers for the national park.

We left the community late in the afternoon, feeling inspired by the farmers but aware of the long road ahead as they worked toward sustainable land management and Rainforest Alliance certification. With their passion and the added commitment from Ghana’s Conservation Alliance, I’m confident that this blossoming project will be successful and replicable.