International - Raising the value of biodiversity-friendly cocoa and carbon storage: ensuring sustainable incomes around Gola Rainforest National Park

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Plant Sciences


Tropical forest and agriculture compete for the same land, but the benefits are distributed to different people. Two key benefits from tropical forest are the continued existence of tropical nature, which enriches our lives, and the storage of carbon in living trees, which regulates our climate. These benefits accrue to people around the world. In contrast, most of the benefits from agriculture (food and income) accrue to the farmers themselves, plus local and national consumers and local and national economies.

The consequence is that land-use decisions in any given location will mostly be made by the beneficiaries of agriculture rather than the beneficiaries of tropical forest, for obvious reasons: farmers know that they benefit from converting forest to agriculture and are able to convert their desires into action, while the beneficiaries of tropical forest are global but individually only benefit a little and also find it difficult to convert their desires into action. The result is that tropical forest continues to be converted to agriculture.

One way to try to right this imbalance in decision-making is to use what are called 'market-based instruments' to make the conservation of tropical forest at least as profitable to local communities and to agribusinesses as farming. Two such instruments are carbon-credit payments and premium-pricing for agricultural goods. For instance, consumers of airline flights and 'Rainforest-Friendly' chocolate bars pay extra, and the generated income streams are directed to countries and their local populations to compensate them for not converting forest to farmland.

However, the big challenge is to verify that these payments are indeed resulting in the conservation of forest that is high in carbon and biodiversity. Until recently, this challenge has been largely insuperable because of the technical difficulties of measuring forest carbon and biodiversity in ways that are auditable and low-cost. Recently, though, major advances in satellite remote-sensing are making it possible to track changes in forest cover, repeatedly and at a low cost per image (in many cases, free to download).

The remaining challenge is to interpret these data-rich images in order to quantify changes in the amount of aboveground biomass (to measure change in carbon stocks) and in the amount of biodiversity that those forests contain. This challenge requires on-the-ground measurements to generate the data that can be used to interpret raw data from satellite-based sensors.

This is what we propose, working in the 908 km2 forested buffer zone of the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP) in Sierra Leone, where cocoa, a potential driver of deforestation, is the main cash crop. So far, only a small portion of farmers receive a higher price for 'Rainforest Friendly' cocoa, and payments for carbon are jeopardised if forest clearance in the buffer zone continues unabated. Satellite-based mapping would inform sustainable development plans that allow cocoa expansion to be directed to areas of low carbon and biodiversity, and ongoing satellite-based monitoring would make it possible for anyone to easily verify whether carbon stocks and biodiversity are being protected. Carbon payments and premium-pricing for Rainforest-Friendly cocoa would therefore be safeguarded and expanded, improving the welfare of the 22,000 people living in the buffer zone while also reducing pressure on forest.

This project has been co-designed with GRC-LG who manage the GRNP and who identified the need for a better decision-support system. The current method of verification for carbon payments via five-yearly surveys is inefficient and does not account for biodiversity. GRC-LG has strong links with the Sierra Leone government, placing this work in a strong position to influence the management of other forest-carbon projects in West Africa.

Keywords: biodiversity, carbon, cocoa, REDD+, metabarcoding, remote sensing, tropical forest

Planned Impact

The project will immediately benefit the project partner GRC-LG and consequently benefit the 22,000 people that live in the communities bordering the Gola Rainforest National Park (GRNP). It will also influence the Government of Sierra Leone in the medium to long term.

Immediate impacts (2019-2020):

GRC-LG, in partnership with RSPB, have two projects underway to upscale existing cocoa programs in Sierra Leone & Liberia. In Sierra Leone, an additional 100MT of cocoa is expected to be exported by 2020 and an additional 2000 farmers recruited to the program. This is a critical point in the program implementation, where an effective land-use planning and prioritisation system is essential to ensure that the cocoa can be certified as 'Rainforest-Friendly,' delivering against carbon, biodiversity, and livelihood targets. Evidence from neighbouring Liberia suggests that without guidance, expansion of cocoa is likely to drive deforestation of biodiverse forest.

1. Maps will demonstrate clearly where cocoa / agricultural expansion will have the least detrimental impacts on carbon and biodiversity.
Scenario modelling will be used as input to the development vision for the Gola REDD+ leakage belt and inform the direction of the Gola cocoa program and other livelihood interventions.
2. Maps and model outputs will be used as the basis for developing participatory agreements with communities to guide cocoa / agricultural expansion and forest conservation.
3. A cost-effective, repeatable monitoring system will provide accurate, third-party-verifiable aboveground biomass and biodiversity data.
4. Processes contribute to the global market definition of 'Rainforest-Friendly' cocoa.

Medium-term benefits (2020-2030):

Cocoa farmers and local communities
1. Forest-edge communities request for resource-use agreements in the leakage belt fulfilled, giving clarity about development opportunities for agriculture and cocoa, promoting income and food security.
2. The Gola cocoa model expanded to all 7 chiefdoms in an environmentally sustainable way that safeguards REDD+ payments and achieves Rainforest-Friendly premiums (($2000/MT) above the market price), increasing household incomes by c.10%, supporting the livelihoods of 22,000 people.

Biodiversity. - Reduced deforestation and preservation of habitat connectivity between highly diverse areas of intact forest will maximise the biodiversity value of the landscape and maintain linkages between National Parks and forest reserves in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia. This is of critical importance to maintain gene flow, ensuring population viability, and also to facilitate seasonal migration of species such as the Elephant (Loxodonta africana). GRNP is one of the few sites in West Africa to host increasing populations of endangered Chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus) and Western Red Colobus (Piliocolobus badius). If dispersal routes are protected, GRNP has the potential to act as a source for re-establishment of populations of these species in neighbouring but depauperate National Parks.

Local NGOs and International Partners. - In-country capacity to manage natural resources and direct sustainable development will be significantly enhanced for GRC-LG and its partners, ensuring long-term sustainability of GRNP. International partners such as RSPB will be able to free resources for other projects.A methodology for efficient, large-scale assessment of biodiversity and aboveground carbon is trialled and made publicly available to other end users and scientists.

National level. - A case-study demonstrating the successful promotion of carbon, biodiversity, and livelihood co-benefits informs other REDD+ projects in West Africa. Results will contribute to the implementation of national policies and laws in relation to REDD+ and cocoa development.


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Description The Gola project 
Organisation Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)
Department Centre for Conservation Science
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Learned Society 
PI Contribution The University of Cambridge has worked closely for several years with the RSPB in their Gola Rainforest project in Sierra Leone, and this is the latest of those collaborationa
Collaborator Contribution Logistic support and providing scientific advice. RSPB have been instrumental in protecting one of the last remaining areas of intact forest in the region and are keen to engage with researchers to develop science-based approaches to protect the forest.
Impact Multidisciplinary; bringing together zoologists, plant scientists, and remote sensing experts together. Several papers have come out the collaboration between Cambridge and RSPB in relation to the Gola national park. This particular GCRF funded collaboration has not - as yet - delivered outcomes as it was much delayed by covid. It's remarkable that the UEA team were able to collect samples last October which are now processed, so publications should be forthcoming.
Start Year 2020