The Cacao Alliance, an initiative led by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the inter-research area alliance between CIAT scientists from the Soils Research Area and Ecosystem Services theme from the Decision and Policy Analysis Research Area (DAPA), is starting a new collaboration to develop a hydrological assessment and propose water-secure management recommendations for three prioritized areas in El Salvador. In this collaboration, CIAT scientists are challenged to provide clear, practical, and landscape-specific assessments to identify zones with better water availability for cocoa production as well as to define soil and water management solutions needed to enhance water retention in the soil and reduce water losses by runoff. Furthermore, this inter-research area alliance has allowed highlighting the strengths and opportunities for this kind of collaborative project at CIAT.
For soils and ecosystem services areas, this project represents an important opportunity to support the development of a strong initiative that will benefit more than 6,000 smallholders as well as carry out the CIAT strategy.
Cacao Alliance initiative
The El Salvador National Cacao Alliance aims to reactivate cocoa production in the country and position El Salvador as a well-known source of cocoa for the specialty and gourmet segments of the international market. Originally from Central America, cocoa production was almost extinguished in El Salvador, with less than 2,100 ha of land remaining growing cocoa in the entire country.
Although cocoa production in El Salvador is not representative at the international level, the Cacao Alliance is working to increase production and ensure quality and access to markets for Salvadoran cocoa. In this sense, CIAT will support the Cacao Alliance strategy by developing tools based on GIS, soils, and hydrologic knowledge to assess and provide recommendations for an eco-efficient and water-secure management of soil and water at the landscape level for cocoa production.
The environmental strategy of the Cacao Alliance
To achieve the objectives of the Cacao Alliance, two environmental and critical factors that potentially limit cocoa production need to be carefully considered: widespread soil degradation caused by erosion from poor agricultural practices and deforestation in El Salvador and variable precipitation patterns. Cocoa plant health is limited in degraded soil because of limited water-holding capacity, limited root growth, and lack of soil fertility. All of these limit “water productivity” measured as crop growth per unit of water (rainfall or irrigation). Additionally, over the past couple of decades, precipitation has tended to be increasingly concentrated in intense storm events rather than low-intensity rain spread over days or weeks. This change is attributable to the impacts of global climate change on Central America. When precipitation falls in intense storms, more water is lost to runoff or evaporation as the soils cannot hold and store water, and therefore less is available for plant production via transpiration.
The Alliance proposes, by means of cocoa production, to restore degraded and deforested lands through the implementation of agroforestry systems, and adopt environmentally sustainable farming practices that include soil and water conservation. Additionally, the Cacao Alliance seeks to create partnerships among private companies, government institutions, research organizations, and academic institutions, among others, to create a national cocoa institute for soil and seed research, agricultural technologies, and climate change adaptability.
First steps developed
The collaboration started in December 2016 with a visit to El Salvador. During the visit, CIAT researchers had a chance to show to CRS, the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, its Spanish acronym), and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (MAG, its Spanish acronym) their expertise in several topics such as hydrological modeling, payments for ecosystem services, development of GIS tools and water analysis for agriculture, water footprint, digital soil mapping, soil management, and so on, including several initiatives developed by CIAT in Central America. Moreover, CIAT researchers visited new cocoa growers in the departments of Usulután and Sonsonate and recognized some challenges regarding cocoa and agroforestry systems implementation in the country mainly on steep slopes. CIAT is now working to gather and analyze the available information and, in the next months, will develop an integrated soil and water assessment tool for the Cacao Alliance.