My passion for wildlife was stimulated in my teenage years, mainly thanks to my Mum (a biology teacher) who made me look at the world differently and being inspired by writers such as Paul Colinvaux. This early interest developed into biological research in my 20s, when I did practical conservation work in places such as the Comores and Mongolia.
Today, any free time I have I spend pottering around the flatlands of East Anglia or escaping to our hut on the Northumberland coast looking for wildlife and castles with my wife and children.
I studied Biological Sciences at Oxford and Conservation at UCL, and worked at Wildlife and Countryside Link before spending five years as Conservation Director at Plantlife.
I joined the RSPB as Head of Government Affairs in 2004, became Head of Sustainable Development in 2006, before becoming Conservation Director in 2011.
If, for whatever reason, you are still in need of a dose optimism, here is an update by my colleague, Jake di Paolo (Project Research Officer, Gola Cocoa), on work we are doing in West Africa helping to develop livelihoods from cocoa production to support the protection of Liberia’s globally important forests.
As I sit in a conference room, at the Green Liberia Cocoa National Workshop in Monrovia, surrounded by members of the country’s cocoa sector I ask myself ‘will I ever look at a chocolate bar in the same way again?!’
Cocoa growing in Kawelahun, Porkpa District in Grand Cape Mount County (Photo credit: Jake Di Paolo). Forest habitat across the river from Kawelahun, Porkpa District in Grand Cape Mount County (Photo credit: Jake Di Paolo)
I am here in West Africa as part of the RSPB’s Gola Cocoa: Protecting Forests and Empowering People project, funded by DFID’s Partnerships for Forests program, working on the Liberian side of the Gola Forest Landscape. This project is focused on helping to develop livelihoods from cocoa production to support the protection of Liberia’s globally important forest habitats. The Gola forest in Liberia includes the protected Gola Forest National Park as well as areas of community owned and managed forest. It is a significant remnant of the once vast Upper Guinea Forest belt of West Africa and is recognised as one of 35 biodiversity hotspots around the world. It supports species such as the critically endangered western chimpanzee, endangered pygmy hippo and forest elephants, as well as several species of threatened birds. Many of Liberia’s poorest and most vulnerable people are also dependent on this forest landscape for their subsistence and livelihoods.
The communities living in and around Gola forest earn their livelihoods from a patchwork of different land uses including diamond mining and large-scale oil palm development. These and shifting subsistence agriculture (principally for rice), combined with an expanding population in the area, have the potential to threaten the ecological integrity of forests in the landscape.
Historically, significant quantities of cocoa were also grown in Liberia, but civil wars spanning more than a decade resulted in cocoa farms being abandoned and much of the knowledge on how to produce quality cocoa lost. Liberian cocoa farmers now produce low yields of poor quality beans, which are being sold at very low prices.
Map of 308 cocoa farms in relation to forest of High Conservation Value and community forests in the Greater Gola landscape, produced as part of the Baseline Assessment studies under Phase 1 of RSPB’s Gola Forest project. Focus Group interview with cocoa farmers in Temesando village, Foya District, Lofa County.
But there is hope! Cocoa farmers are being shown that cocoa can be farmed within the forest without the need for clearing additional land. It is a permanent tree crop, which grows sustainably under forest shade and does not need full sun. Yields can be increased by intensifying cocoa production within existing cocoa farms through the introduction of good agricultural practices. This is a win:win scenario, with improved income generation for cocoa farmers, in a way that could retain the forest landscape and the wildlife it supports.
It is in this context that RSPB has worked in partnership with the Society for Conservation of Nature in Liberia (its Birdlife partner), TWIN (a UK trade NGO), VADEMCO (a Liberian agribusiness), the Wild Chimpanzee Foundation, IDH (a Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative) and the national Forestry Development Authority to organise this workshop focused on developing an ethical and environmentally sustainable cocoa industry, not just in the Gola forest but for the whole of Liberia.
This workshop represented a rare gathering of all cocoa sector stakeholders in Liberia including farmers, businesses, government, civil society organisations and donors. It was a fantastic opportunity for these important players to work collaboratively to re-invigorate Liberia’s cocoa sector, ensuring that environmental and social safeguarding are key factors. Some of the farmers up until that point have had limited exposure to the world of cocoa and chocolate production beyond their farms. Most of them had never ever seen or tasted chocolate before! It was a significant moment during the workshop when the farmers were given the opportunity to taste the high-quality chocolate that is being produced from Gola forest beans in Sierra Leone. It was testimony of what is possible through hard work.
Workshop participants (cocoa farmer representatives, photo on left; VADEMCO representative Mr Bai Rogers, photo on right) get a taste of the future in the form of sample chocolate bars produced from cocoa beans sourced from RSPB’s Gola Rainforest Cocoa Project in Sierra Leone- the inspiration for the Gola Cocoa project in Liberia (Photo credit: Jake Di Paolo).
In a country where gender equality still faces many challenges, it was a poignant moment when Ma Saye of the Farmers Cooperative in Gbarpolu County took the podium and stated confidently in her opening remarks what she, and her fellow cocoa farmers in her county, felt was needed to improve their cocoa production.
Another bright moment during the workshop was when cocoa farmer Jacob Fornoh, read out the final recommendations from the workshop, which were subsequently endorsed by the representative of the Minister for Agriculture. Jacob was one of 17 farmers who engaged in the discussions during the workshop and shared the desire to create change in Liberia’s cocoa sector. Two of the key actions taken from these were to re-establish the Cocoa Sector Working Group and to update and implement the National Cocoa Development Strategy, ensuring that it takes into consideration the environmental and livelihoods factors highlighted during the workshop.
Overall the event was a great success and received good media coverage within Liberia. In true African spirit, there was singing and dancing to reflect the sense of optimism that this process would steer cocoa development to support Liberia’s forests and local communities.
Undeniably there is still a long way to go on this journey, but in the meantime, as I reflect at the end of day three of the workshop still looking at a packed hall, I can’t help but feel the future for Liberian Green Cocoa is looking ‘sweet’.
So no, I can’t look at my next chocolate bar in the same way! It will remind me of the plight of the cocoa farmers in West Africa. I will remember the many organisations working to get cocoa beans from remote farms to producers and to the international markets. And I will certainly remember the huge effort required by these farmers to increase their yields and help save the valuable forests and wildlife around them.
Participants raise their hands to accept the recommendations from the workshop for an updated Cocoa Sector Development Strategy (Photo credit: Jake Di Paolo). Mr Michael Titoe accepts (and later endorses) the updated recommendations from Jacob Fornoh (Photo credit: Jake Di Paolo).
I hope we'll be able to buy Gola chocolate in RSPB shops/ reserve centres ? Just the thing for elevenses on a hard days birdwatching !
Fantastic work by the RSPB and the local Birdlife International organisations in the work that you are doing to conserve the West African rain forests. This work is so vital for the preservation of many of our migrant birds that over our winter south of the Sahara. So many of our migrants are having bad times at the moment with the terrible illegal slaughters around the Mediterranean and very difficult crossings of the Sahara. In addition, your actions are conserving many of the West African threatened resident forest birds and many seriously endangered large mammals.
Great stuff all round.