“When Gola came here, I didn’t want it because the forest was my livelihood.  Now, I want Gola to stay because it taught us cocoa farming.” [Quote from a member of cocoa production cooperative.]

During my brief stay in Sierra Leone, I was overwhelmed by the warmth of the welcome we received from the local communities living in and around Gola Rainforest.  It is clear that the work we are doing with our local partners is transforming lives and helping to protect the forest.

I travelled with my colleague Jonathan Barnard who has led our tropical forest work for the past seven years – about a quarter of the time that the RSPB has been working in Gola.  We were hosted by the Gola Rainforest National Park team whose 150 staff are employed by the Gola Rainforest Company (GRC) formed as a partnership between the Sierra Leonean government, the Conservation Society for Sierra Leone, the RSPB and the local community.

As well as protecting the park by teams of park rangers, the National Park team invests in local community development.  This is based on a range of benefit sharing agreements which are essentially compensation payments to the landowners of the forest. 

These payments have allowed the communities to build core infrastructure such as hospitals and schools but also to purchase essentially technology.  For example, we visited a community which had bought a rice mill in 2016 and it has had a massive impact: reducing the time it takes to mill one bag of rice from one day by hand to five minutes by machine.  The women, now relieved of that labour, are now able to invest in vegetable gardening thereby generating another source of income.

But the Gola Rainforest Company goes further to support community development that benefits the forest.  This has led to a new focus on cocoa farming which has the potential to provide even greater impact.  In partnership with TWIN, Rainforest Alliance, Jula Consultancy and the RSPB with funding from Comic Relief, this project is training communities that live next to the forest to raise standards in cocoa farming and to work together to provide a much sought commodity. 

Having sampled the end product with the first batch of Gola chocolate bars last year (see here), I saw the rest of the supply chain in action: the nurseries where the cocoa plant saplings were grown; the demonstration plots where farmers were shown best practice in cocoa farming; the harvest of cocoa (re-enacted as we were in the wrong season), the drying, bagging and storage of the beans ready for shipment.

Since starting the project 18 months ago, 1,871 farmers (both men and women) have formed cooperatives to manage their cocoa production and divide the profits amongst themselves.  Now, families can send their children to school because of the extra money they have earned.  It is unsurprising that are keen to grow their business.

The Gola partners want the cocoa farming to be successful not just because it is a key requirement of the carbon financing project we started in 2014 (see here) but also because it offers the chance of a lasting solution by providing sustainable livelihoods which are not dependent on forest destruction.  What’s more, research we have carried out suggests that this type of farmer is better for wildlife than other farming methods.

It is humbling to see the impact that this programme is having on the lives of the local people and the RSPB has been at the heart of this from the beginning.

As one local chief said, “The forest gives life.  When we took the trees down, the streams and rivers dried up.  We know we must change.  We are now the best advocates for Gola Rainforest.” 

The UK is the fourth largest consumer of chocolate in the world.  We want that chocolate consumption to do good and to help save the planet’s remaining rainforest. That’s why we are determined to make the Gola chocolate brand a success and will continue to work with the Gola communities. 

You can watch a video (made by our Chief Technical Advisor to the Gola Company, Pietro Sandini) of the cocoa production process here.