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DRC’s cacao boom leaves a bitter aftertaste for Congo Basin forest

  • The DRC’s Tshopo province lost a record-breaking area of intact forests to fires in 2021, a trend researchers say is driven by agricultural expansion, as displaced people from the violence-ravaged eastern DRC move into the province.
  • There’s been an increase in clearing of forests to cultivate food crops and cash crops like cacao beans, used to make cocoa for chocolate.
  • Around 70% of the world’s supply of cacao beans is produced in West African countries, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon the biggest producers, where its cultivation has also accelerated deforestation.
  • “You are aware of what has happened in West Africa in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana,” Germain Batsi, a DRC agroforestry expert, told Mongabay. “I am afraid such scenarios will be reproduced here, something we would regret afterwards.”

In 2021, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s biggest province, Tshopo, lost 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) of intact forests to fires. Researchers based in the provincial capital, Kisangani, suspect the record-breaking forest loss is linked to expanding cultivation of cacao by recent migrants from neighboring North Kivu province.

These unbroken forest landscapes are some of the most biodiversity-rich areas on the planet. The burnt area in 2021 was about three times the average for the preceding 10 years, according to researchers at Global Forest Watch.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show the damage is concentrated around Kisangani, a city of more than 1.2 million people sitting amid dense woodland. The Yangambi Biosphere Reserve, 100 km (60 miles) to the west, was not spared either.

Threatened tree species Entandrophragma utile in Kisangani, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).


Thousands of people were displaced by armed conflict in the border provinces of North and South Kivu in 2019 and 2020, according to Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The frontier region, on the DRC’s eastern border with Rwanda and Uganda, has witnessed persistent ethnic conflict since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. More than 100 armed groups are active in the region, and the security situation has deteriorated in recent years.

There are no official data on the number of internally displaced people, but news reports show an increase in violence in North and South Kivu that coincides with an influx of migrants west into Tshopo.

A map displaying unusually high number of fire alerts for Tshopo province in March 2021. The panel on top captures rainfall patterns. Despite receiving normal rainfall the province reported above normal fire activity suggesting climatic disruptions were not responsible.

Researchers at the University of Kisangani say this influx of people is fueling greater demand for food crops as well as an increase in cash crop production, especially cacao. (While the terms cacao and cocoa are often used interchangeable, the latter typically refers to the powder made from the roasted cacao seeds.)

“There is definitely an increase in the practice of cocoa plantations in the Tshopo in the last five years,” said Janvier Lisingo, an ecologist at the University of Kisangani. “All around the city, people have bought concessions to plant cocoa, coffee and also some palm. It’s really a frenzy.”

Map of the DRC showing the provinces. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

More than 80% of Tshopo’s population is engaged in subsistence farming. It’s not in their culture to grow perennial crops, according to Germain Batsi, an agroforestry expert at the University of Kisangani. But many of the new arrivals come from communities that are more accustomed to cultivating commercial crops like cacao, researchers say.

“Tshopo deforestation is caused by the spread of cocoa brought forth by people fleeing the war from the eastern part of DRC, especially the Nande tribes,” said Neville Assani Mapenzi, a researcher who works in the Yangambi reserve. He cautioned that in the absence of a rigorous study, it remains unclear to what extent this explained the spike in burnt area in 2021.

North and South Kivu have a history of cacao and coffee planting, with an estimated 250,000 coffee and 65,000 cacao growers in the two provinces.

People from the Nande ethnic group, originally from North Kivu, have settled in neighboring Tshopo and Ituri provinces over several decades. However, in recent years the ethnic violence has spread to Ituri province as well.

Two maps showing the increase in reported violent incidents from Ituri province, which lies north of North Kivu. The first  (left) shows reported incidents between April 1, 2017 to Dec 31, 2020. The second (right) shows reported incidents between Jan 1, 2021 and Jan 31, 2022. Move the slider to view the two maps. Source: Kivu Security Tracker/ Congo Research Group, New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and Human Rights Watch.

An ‘indirect land grab’

Tshopo offers more than just greater security: land is easier to acquire here.

Some of the newcomers are financially well-off and able to purchase land from local chiefs to establish plantations. According to agroforestry expert Batsi, local chiefs tend to hand over forest land that isn’t currently being cultivated by the host communities, so these plantations are replacing forested areas.

This has sparked tensions within local communities. Land is considered communal property in many parts of Tshopo, and disputes arise when such transfers change the nature of ownership.

“What is being observed is a form of indirect land grab,” Batsi said. “Once the land has been given to migrants, and perennial cultures have been installed, in the end, it becomes their property. Based on documents obtained from the chiefs, the new owners obtain property titles from the state.

“Some communities are dispossessed of their customary land,” he said.

Nene Morisho Mwana Biningo, who specializes in conflict studies at the Pole Institute in Goma, the North Kivu capital, has documented a similar dynamic of dispossession in Ituri province. Biningo and his colleagues linked the process with the arrival of the Nande, who have been settling in Ituri since the 1970s, and also more recent Hutu migrants.

“For the autochthonous people in Ituri, land is collective property, whereas for the new arrivals, land, especially that acquired by purchase and development, is private property,” Biningo and his colleagues wrote in a report published in 2020.

And in North Kivu, land is expensive and in short supply. So the migrants aren’t just moving to escape conflict, but also to seek out economic opportunities, Biningo told Mongabay.

The price of cocoa

Cacao production is a well-documented driver of deforestation in West Africa. Around 70% of the world’s supply of cacao beans is produced in West Africa, with Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Cameroon the biggest producers. Introduced to the DRC during Belgian colonial rule, the evergreen cacao tree (Theobroma cacao) has found a suitable terrain and climate here.

The global market for cocoa was valued at $106.19 billion in 2017 and is expected to expand to almost $190 billion by 2026. However, according to one estimate, cacao farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana earn less than 10% of chocolate’s retail price. Efforts are now being made to remedy this glaring inequality, with Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, the two countries that supply 60% of the global cocoa market, adding a Living Income Differential (LID) of $400 per ton to their farm-gate prices for the 2020-21 season.

This is aimed at improving cultivators’ incomes to tackle child labor and allow them to invest in their plots rather than clear forests for more farmland. “Market forces might drive manufacturers to gradually shift to other, cheaper producing countries, maybe only partially for expansion of their bulk chocolate production,” a research paper produced for the European Commission noted.

Most demand for cocoa comes from Europe, a hub for the processing and manufacturing of chocolate. Europeans also eat more chocolate per capita than anyone else in the world: Germans consume 11 kilograms (24 pounds) a year, and a study published in 2021 found that German demand for cocoa posed a huge risk to forests in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

As plantations expand in other parts of the continent, the political instability and informal and unorganized nature of the sector makes drawing such connections difficult.

The potential for damage is immense. The DRC is home to the largest swath of the Congo Basin rainforest, at 155 million hectares (383 million acres), or an area more than half the size of India. Primary forest cover shrank by 5% between 2002 and 2020. Clearing small parcels to grow crops is a major cause of forest disturbance in the Congo Basin rainforest. These smallholdings are used for staples like rice, maize and cassava, and commercial plants like coffee and cacao.

A 2014 report found that cocoa expansion could become a new and significant driver for forest loss in the DRC. Up to 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of forest were found to be at risk in the decade following the report’s publication. The authors identified the province of Orientale — since broken up into four new provinces, including Tshopo — as facing the greatest threat from cacao-driven deforestation.

A cacao tree in a farm in DRC. Cacao production is a driver of deforestation in West Africa. It was introduced to the DRC during Belgian colonial rule, where has found a suitable terrain and climate. Image by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

A free-for-all?

It’s unclear who the end consumers of Tshopo-grown cocoa are because most of the cacao enters the global market through Uganda. Nande communities are found in both countries, and those in the DRC can leverage community ties to move the commodity across the border, Biningo said.

“Vast amounts of Congolese cocoa and coffee are smuggled into neighboring countries each season,” a 2021 report from Adam Smith International (ASI), a London-based advisory group, and UK Aid noted, blaming porous borders and poor enforcement. UK Aid, a British government entity, is funding a program implemented by ASI called ÉLAN RDC to promote the DRC as an investment destination and a reliable supplier of cocoa and coffee.

“Right now, the farmers and the planters are free to do whatever they want. They can go and cut large areas of forest to install their plantations,” Batsi said. “You are aware of what has happened in West Africa, in countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana. I am afraid such scenarios will be reproduced here, something we would regret afterwards.”

A path between Kisangani and Masako village, Democratic Republic of Congo. Image by Ollivier Girard/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Banner image: Banana, teak and cacao plantation in Yanonge, near Kisangani. Image by Axel Fassio/CIFOR via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

To save chocolate’s future, ‘start now and go big’ on agroforestry


Hoang, N. T., & Kanemoto, K. (2021). Mapping the deforestation footprint of nations reveals growing threat to tropical forests. Nature Ecology & Evolution5(6), 845-853. doi:10.1038/s41559-021-01417-z

Wilkins, K. (2021). Building a national industry: The role of industry associations in the development of the cocoa and coffee industry in the DRC. Adam Smith International, UK Aid. Retrieved from

Batsi, G., Sonwa, D. J., Mangaza, L., Ebuy, J., & Kahindo, J. (2020). Biodiversity of the cocoa agroforests of the Bengamisa-Yangambi forest landscape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Forests11(10), 1096. doi:10.3390/f11101096

Tyukavina, A., Hansen, M. C., Potapov, P., Parker, D., Okpa, C., Stehman, S. V., … Turubanova, S. (2018). Congo Basin forest loss dominated by increasing smallholder clearing. Science Advances4(11). doi:10.1126/sciadv.aat2993

De Beule, H., Jassogne, L., & van Asten, P. (2014). Cocoa: Driver of deforestation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo? CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS). Retrieved from

Biningo, N. M. M. (ed.) (2020). Mobilité de Hutu en Ituri: Entre acceptation et méfiance. Pole Institute. Retrieved from

Ferrari, E., Nechifor, N., Tillie, P., & Boysen, O. (2021). Impacts of the cocoa living income differential policy in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. European Commission, Joint Research Centre. doi:10.2760/984346

(Editor’s note: The map showing burnt area in Tshopo province was updated to correct the description of labels.)

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