Introduced in West Africa in the 1960s to combat the desertification of arid regions, the cultivation of cashew nuts is today a danger for the environment and the biodiversity of Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading producer of cashew nuts, according to the report by the environmental protection NGO Mighty Earth, published on November 8.

Due to very strong global demand for this nut, described as a superfood good for health, cashew nut cultivation has experienced spectacular growth over the last twenty years, particularly in Ivory Coast. In this country, production increased from 100,000 tonnes in 2002 to more than 1.2 million tonnes in 2022.

The NGO, aided by the organizations Regroupement des actors ivoiriens des droits humaine (Raidh) and Green Forest Africa, explains that the Ivorian State and the private sector have encouraged the development of this culture, to the point that it now occupies today “an area almost equivalent to that of the Hawaiian archipelago, or 1.6 million hectares.”

According to this report entitled “The Cashew Puzzle”, this extensive agriculture, which is akin to “monoculture”, “profoundly modifies valuable areas of dry savannah forest in the region, as has cocoa cultivation for the tropical rainforests of the south of the country”. Cocoa is one of the main causes of heavy deforestation in Ivory Coast, which has lost 90% of its forests in half a century.

The report explains, supported by satellite maps, that the cashew tree also accelerates deforestation. It now extends to the east, west and even south, due to the drying out of the formerly wet lands of the south-central part of the country. According to the NGO, some cashew nut-producing regions in Ivory Coast experienced a loss of 25% of their primary forest cover between 2019 and 2023.

“Severe reduction in forest area”

Its profitability and the light work it requires make cashew an interesting crop for farmers who, “over the last thirty years, have begun to plant their farms densely. As demand for land for cashew cultivation increased, farmers began to encroach on uncultivated areas of native vegetation. This trend accelerated during the 2000s and shows little signs of slowing down,” worries the NGO.

The report also recalls the work of other researchers, such as that of Cathy Watson, from the Center for International Forestry Research and Global Agroforestry (Cifor-Icraf), who considered in 2021 that these forest destructions were a “repeated error” , after the ravages of cocoa. It also draws on research by Ivorian academics who were concerned about bushfires used to clear land for the crop, threatening the “low forests” of Comoé National Park in northeastern Ivory Coast. Activities which, according to them, could “lead to a severe reduction in forest area and a loss of biodiversity”.

Because, according to Mighty Earth, the chemical compounds of the tree would prevent the development of many plants around it and the disappearance of animal species. “We asked that they provide us with laboratory analyzes that prove it, we are waiting for answers,” replies Adama Coulibaly, the director general of the Cotton and Cashew Nut Council (CCA), very critical of this report.

This phenomenon, combined with the use of pesticides, would make these regions “green deserts”, exclusively composed of cashew trees. “This study started from an empirical observation: that the entire environment was being modified,” relates Amourlaye Touré, co-author of the report with Thea Parson. When I was young, in the north of Ivory Coast where I come from, there was lush, varied vegetation and endemic trees. But I saw over the years that the entire natural environment was being modified, that certain species of birds, the plants and the fruits that I consumed had disappeared. Instead, on both sides, there was only cashew nuts. »

” A double-edged weapon “

In the Bondoukou region, in the north-east of the country, where cashew trees grow as far as the eye can see, Fonibé Sékongo, director of the Coopabo cooperative, explains that today people are fighting to obtain additional land in order to make grow cashew trees, while the sector ensures that farmers cannot plant more than three hectares per year.

“We are against the increase in surface area. But the planters are razing their corn or yam fields for cashew nuts,” he notes, aware of the danger for the food security of these farmers. “If one day the cashew nut is attacked by a fungus or an insect, families will suffer,” continues the man who assures that the crop has changed the daily lives of many inhabitants of the region. In Ivory Coast, cashew nuts support half a million households today.

The criticisms of Mighty Earth are difficult to hear within the cashew sector, as this culture has allowed the country to become rich, industries to grow and many farmers to improve their living conditions. “It has nothing to do with the reality on the ground. There is only nastiness in this report, serious assertions, without any proof. Mighty Earth’s approach is ideological and I don’t know in whose service,” thunders Adama Coulibaly.

“The cultivation of cashew nuts has proven to be a double-edged sword for Côte d’Ivoire,” summarizes Julian Oram, Africa director of Mighty Earth. Although it is an important source of income in the north of the country, it continues to expand “in an uncontrolled manner over the few remaining areas of natural vegetation”. According to him, at this rate, “the cashew nut could be a new nail in the coffin of dozens of emblematic species, including the West African chimpanzee”.

Another danger highlighted in this report is the risks faced by those, mainly women in Ivory Coast, who shell nuts. Supporting photo and testimony from a sheller, Mighty Earth assures that not all women benefit from sufficient protection for this work which is dangerous for the skin, due to the caustic acid contained in the nut, which can cause lesions and burns . Here again, the general director of the CCA contests, ensuring that, apart from artisanal workers, all shellers are today protected in processing companies.

In conclusion, the authors of the report call on players in this industry to “cease all expansion in order to allow nature to recover. We must ensure that cashew farmers are supported to transition to sustainable practices to preserve their livelihoods and protect nature.” The NGO also asks Western countries to put in place measures to ban the sale of cashew nuts linked to deforestation.