Can land rights save Ghana’s cocoa sector?

Nellie Peyton –
Since Emmanuel Agyekum took over a decade ago as chief of Nyame Nnae, a poor cocoa farming village in western Ghana, people’s incomes have fallen and his worries have increased.
The cocoa trees planted behind wood-plank houses are getting old, and produce only a fraction of what they used to.
Last year, money ran out between harvest seasons and people struggled to buy food.
“The cocoa trees are dying and it is a worry for us all,” said Agyekum.
Cocoa yields are declining across Ghana, the world’s second-biggest producer after neighbouring Ivory Coast, where about 800,000 family farmers supply cocoa beans to chocolate companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle, according to the government.
The industry regulator, Cocobod, has encouraged farmers to clear away old trees and replant. But under the traditional agreements that govern rural land use, a farmer’s land rights are tied to the crops he is growing.
Cutting down the cocoa can mean losing your lease, said Paul Macek of the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF), which represents over 100 of the biggest companies.
“Land tenure is a risk for any smallholder farmer,” he said.
“As a result of the customary arrangements, sharecroppers are very reluctant to make investments in rehabilitating old farms. Even if the situation is desperate, they really have no incentive to do that.”
In Nyame Nnae, The Hershey Company, cocoa supplier ECOM and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) tested a possible solution.
Working with lawyers, tech companies and local chiefs, they mapped farms and documented customary land agreements that had never been put into writing before.
“What we found is that just the fact of documentation helped farmers increase their sense of security over that land,” said Robert O’Sullivan of US-based non-profit Winrock International, which helped design the pilot project.
When they do not fear losing the land, farmers are more likely to make long-term investments to increase yields, he said.
Hannah Adjei does not know what the document says, but she clutches it tightly in a plastic envelope in the rain.
“If anybody comes and tries to take my land from me, this will help me prove that the land is mine,” said the 54-year-old, who received a customary land title through the pilot project.
Like most cocoa farmers in Nyame Nnae, Adjei is not a native of the region.
According to the document, the land she farms was a gift from her husband, who inherited it from his father, who obtained it through an agreement with the late chief of the district.
In the typical arrangement known as ‘Abunu’, a migrant farmer plants crops on uncultivated land and, when the crops mature, divides the proceeds with the landowner.
But this scheme disadvantages farmers in the long run, said John Bugri, a land economist.
Migrants can toil for generations only to get a portion of the profits and still lose their farm at any time, Bugri said.
“They (landowners) see the people who come and farm the land for them as a cheap source of labour,” he added.
“If you are a tenant farmer who’s saying, ‘Let’s document the rights’, you are the one more likely to be booted out.”
Ghana’s Cocobod estimates that 40 per cent of the country’s crop needs replanting.
It started its own farm rehabilitation programme this month, aiming to more than double productivity in the next 10 years, said Cocobod spokesman Noah Amenyah.
The government hopes raising yields — and therefore incomes — will convince farmers to stay in the sector at a time when many are abandoning cocoa for illegal gold mines and rubber plantations, said Amenyah.
“Land tenure is a significant problem,” he said.
Cocobod will pay landowners to allow farmers to cut old cocoa without losing tenancy, he said.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation