- Savannas and dry forests in vast parts of Côte d’Ivoire are being transformed into orchards of cashew trees, just as large areas of its rainforest have fallen for cocoa.
- Grown in extensive monocultures, cashew has raised incomes but led to deforestation and incursions into protected forests, as major stakeholders overlook the loss of trees and agro-biodiversity.
- Pollination and human diets are suffering, too: nature-based approaches like agroforestry are needed to create a diversified landscape that can make cashew sustainable in the long run.
- The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Farmers in northern Côte d’Ivoire are full of praise for cashew, the Brazilian nut tree introduced in the 1960s – ironically, it turns out – to combat deforestation.
They rhapsodize about its ease of production compared to cotton, that although still grown, once formed the heart of the rural economy. And they love the development cashew has brought.
“Before cashew came, there were no roads, no electricity. When it came, life changed. It is not as hard work as cotton. People are coming back from the city,” says farmer Traore Lakseni.
“It allows me to support my family. With cotton, I worked very hard but was still poor. Cashew is a tree that produces without me doing very much,” says farmer Soro Torna.
Officials are equally positive, smitten by cashew’s meteoric rise. Côte d’Ivoire became the world’s largest exporter of raw cashew nuts in 2015, a staggering achievement for a country that is already the world’s biggest producer of cocoa.
“This was a disfavored area,” says Kone Issouf, head of the Cotton and Cashew Council in the far north district of Korhogo on the border with Mali. “All the young men now have motorbikes.”
“Vietnamese and Indians are everywhere,” says Diakalidia Kone, President of cashew cooperative FENECASI, referring to the buyers rushing around the town: 94% of the country’s cashews are exported raw, mostly to Vietnam and India, which process and export them to the world.
But cashew has a dark side – paradoxically introduced for reforestation, it is now planted on land cleared of trees, usually by using fire. Also worrying as the cashew trees establish themselves is that naturally regenerating trees are weeded out, and a monoculture is created.
“The rapid spread of cashew farms leaves little space for other crops such as cotton, karité (shea), mango and cereals. The extensive production system and subsequent deforestation threaten agro-biodiversity and even cashew itself,” says Christophe Kouame, who leads my organization (CIFOR-ICRAF) in Côte d’Ivoire.
Attempts to improve cashew productivity are undermined by the degradation of ecosystem services it is causing. In one such ‘own goal,’ groups attempting to raise yields by placing hives of domestic honey bees in cashew orchards met only moderate success, because bees need nectar and pollen from more than just cashew.
At least one study in Côte d’Ivoire found no increase in yields when the cashew had meager natural vegetation nearby. Natural vegetation is essential for the wild honey bees, stingless and solitary bees, butterflies, flies, and wasps that are part of the crop’s “pollinator complex.”
“Natural vegetation sustainably maintains more pollinators because it consists of a diversity of melliferous plants, some of which flower even in the dry season,” says entomologist Drissa Coulibaly of the University of Korhogo, adding that cashew monocultures “support only a few bee species.”
Other warnings are that diets are suffering with cashew’s spread, a pattern also experienced with cocoa.
“We observe the abandonment of certain crops, or a drop in their production in favor of cashew. This is the case with millet, which is hardly cultivated today. People buy more food than before,” says Coulibaly.
Wild fruits that long contributed to micronutrient rich diets are waning too. “Rural people consume many wild fruits,” says Guy-Alain Ambe, who catalogued 75 in Côte d’Ivoire’s north. But, say the researcher and others, farmers remove most wild fruit trees when they clear land for cashew, typically leaving just karité and Parkia biglobosa (African locust bean).
A study by CIFOR-ICRAF of Badikaha, a cashew-growing area, determined that just 2.5% was “forest unmodified by humans.” Despite this, it found 87 tree species, of which 32% provide food products like fruits, nuts, leaves, and oil, and 32% are medicinal. These parklands hold much that is precious.
So how much forest is being lost and transformed? No precise figure is available, but it tracks with the rise of cashew.
Charles Yao Sangne and colleagues documented that from 2002 to 2014 near Comoe National Park, cashew increased from 11,743 hectares to 29,872 hectares while “dry dense forest” and gallery forest fell from 26,242 hectares to 6,133.
“Savannas and forests in the northern parts of Côte d’Ivoire are being transformed into vast orchards of cashew trees,” they wrote, adding that if the current dynamics continue, the park – one of only two intact parks in the country – “could be coveted by the rural population.”
Recent satellite analysis by Vivid Economics detects cashew-driven forest loss outside and inside protected areas. This includes “severe loss of remaining fragmented rural forest” between Bocanda and Daoukro and “cashew taking over primary forest in government forêts classées (designated forests) of Plaine de Elephants, Soyota, Marahoue and Betafla.”
(Alarmingly some of these areas are in the cocoa belt, in part a sign of climate change.)
Finally, several foresters highlight the presence of cashew in forêts classées in the country’s north, including on Mount Korhogo.
How could this be happening in a country so recently shaken by the public revelation that cocoa had invaded almost every forêt classée in the south, and now staring at the EU’s plan to ban deforestation-related commodities?
It could be that dry woodlands are less charismatic than rainforest. But that failed to protect the six million hectares of Ivorian rainforest that fell to cocoa, and makes dry forest no less important. “Globally, dry forests are even more endangered than rainforests. They just have no lobby,” says German ecologist Katharine Stein, who studies pollination in West Africa.
It could also be that despite the climate and biodiversity crises, decision makers are simply unable to see trees and forests for the assets they are.
The World Bank falls into this trap on its Côte d’Ivoire website, describing itself as particularly concerned about “anti-deforestation and sustainable cocoa production” but is focused on “development of competitiveness in the cashew industry.”
Côte d’Ivoire cannot afford to lose more forest, and its people must exit poverty. There are some bright spots: objectives of its REDD+ policy include “to reduce deforestation due to the cashew nut industry.” It also wants to encourage agroforestry systems – cashew growing with other trees on farms.
“We need specific models because cashew expresses its potential when its canopy receives adequate sun,” says Kouame. “To maintain ecosystems and agro-biodiversity and secure a productive food system, we envision parklands-based cashew with keystone species like Vitellaria, Parkia, tamarind and indigenous leguminous trees.”
Donors and companies need to wake up and stop pretending it is just cocoa that is an issue in the country, and NGOs need to rethink cashews as a “restoration tree” in Africa. It’s an allelopathic exotic. Think of something else.
We need nature-based, food-first solutions.
“Many companies are not aware of the extent to which their commodities depend on pollination. Once they realize that, they will invest in forest restoration projects to maintain or even enhance cashew yield and quality, and along the way create a green reputation for themselves, which consumers like,” says Stein.
Cathy Watson is Chief of Partnerships at CIFOR-ICRAF.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: Agroforestry is an ancient climate change solution that boosts food production and biodiversity, listen here: