Let it grow

What if we stopped replanting trees in cleared forests and let them recover naturally? Researchers have shown that natural forest regeneration is an effective way of reforesting, a practice that could find its place in cocoa farming, where production and restoration go hand in hand.

IRD - Stéphanie M. Carrière

While cocoa cultivation is the main cause of deforestation in West Africa, it also represents an opportunity to restore forest cover in producer countries, thanks to agroforestry. "Agroforestry is the practice of combining agricultural crops with forest trees. Cocoa trees are originally plants that grow in the shade of the undergrowth of South American forests, shade that can be provided by tall trees", explains Bruno Hérault, a CIRAD researcher in the Forests and Societies Unit.

But what can be done to reintroduce trees to these deforested cocoa plantations? "The most common practice today is to replant young trees produced in nurseries. In Côte d'Ivoire, over 10 million trees have been distributed to cocoa growers over the last 10 years," explains the tropical forest specialist.

Plantation shock

Trees that don't always thrive in their new environment. After having been cocooned, planting is a stress that can sometimes be fatal. " Planting shock can also be explained by the fact that trees grown in nurseries don't develop their roots as much as they do in the wild," explains Bruno Hérault. As a result, most of them die or vegetate once replanted. A mixed success for these costly reforestation programs.

But there is an alternative: let the trees regenerate naturally. Bruno Hérault and his colleagues have monitored over 12,000 trees in the cocoa plantations of Côte d'Ivoire , and have found that letting the young trees in the fields grow is more effective . "The forests were cut down just a few decades ago, so there are still a lot of slash-and-burn trees scattered around the landscape,spared by the felling, and therefore with great potential for natural regeneration via the soil's seed bank," explains Bruno Hérault. These spontaneous trees are much more resilient than trees grown in nurseries, and have a better chance of developing properly.

Intimate relationship

While the practice is more effective and less expensive than tree reintroduction programs, it still requires support from cocoa farmers, particularly in identifying young forest seedlings growing spontaneously on their plots. " We need to train them to recognize and choose the most interesting trees to keep", says the specialist.

An alternative which, for the researcher, offers opportunities well beyond the economic and ecological benefits. "Planters have the opportunity to imagine the future of their plot of land themselves, to make it their own. It's also a way for them to develop a more intimate relationship with their land, changing the relationship between man and nature.

It's a first-choice solution, but one that the cocoa industry is struggling to accept. "It's always more attractive to replant trees than to let them grow," deplores the researcher, who advocates the complementary nature of these practices. The natural regeneration of trees could in fact contribute to the effort to regain forest cover, which today covers 9% of the territory of Côte d'Ivoire, a country that is aiming for 20% by 2030.

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