“We are a part of Nature”: Transition in Cocoa Farming in Vietnam

Cocoa production in Vietnam with its world-class recognised quality has the potential to grow in scale and value many times more than presently[QTN1] [LV2] . Global market demand for cocoa and chocolate-related products is increasing, however, the declining yields from major cocoa-growing countries in Africa and South America due to diseases, the current El Nino phase and climate change in 2023 have signaled calls for more sustainable and resilient cocoa farming to secure good harvests for the industry and incomes for growers. To adapt to the situation, Vietnamese cocoa farmers and agricultural extension officers from the Central Highland had an opportunity to join in a study trip organised by the develoPPP project ReCoPro to an organic coffee farm in Dak Lak and Stone Hill Farm in Dong Nai in November 2023. The study trip imparted valuable insights and expertise on agroforestry, sustainable farming practices, and biodiversity, leaving participants with profound lessons.  

The study trip was instructed by Dr. Pham Hong Duc Phuoc, a leading expert on cocoa trees in Vietnam who has transformed a barren rocky hill into a regenerative farm known as Stone Hill Farm, which is pesticide-free and a primary source of premium chocolate production ingredients in Vietnam. According to Dr. Phuoc, various challenges from farmers’ awareness to technical issues hinder the sustainable development of the cocoa industry in Vietnam. In some ways, cocoa is more difficult to grow than other trees. For example, unlike other trees, cocoa trees flower on its trunk rather than on its canopy. This requires distinct care and harvesting techniques. Sharing insights on shifting farmers' awareness towards sustainable farming, Dr. Phuoc commented, "Sometimes, it requires extended training sessions for farmers to observe and receive comprehensive explanations about techniques and practices on cocoa farms.”  

During the visits, farmers were introduced to sustainable techniques like regenerating vegetation cover to prevent soil erosion from runoff and ensure a sustainable water supply and ant rearing. As ants are a natural enemy of many bugs, instead of using chemical pesticides, cocoa farmers can use weaver and black ants to kill the bugs and control pests. The study trip offered farmers an opportunity to observe in practice what they had learned in previous ReCoPro trainings on regenerative farming and agroforestry in cocoa farming, said Dr. Phuoc. The hope is that from experiencing sustainable farming practices first-hand, farmers become more aware and motivated to adopt them themselves. Indeed, Mr. Thien, a participant who has been cultivating cocoa for 16 years, decided to implement immediate changes on his cocoa farms after the trip, such as restoring vegetation cover to reduce water evaporation during the rainy season as well as ant rearing. Similarly, armed with knowledge and experiences gained from this study trip, Mr. Kien, an agriculture officer in Dak Lak, aspires to share and promote these practices among fellow farmers in his community. He believes that such activities on a larger scale and for longer periods will inspire more farmers to embrace change. 

The study trip reshaped farmers' perceptions regarding sustainability, biodiversity, and agroforestry in cocoa farming, as recognised by Mr. Kien. Approaches such as intercropping, mixed-tree plantation, rearing ants, and sustainable water usage were new to cocoa farmers. "Initially, when they visited Mr. Phuoc's farm, they questioned why water was provided for squirrels. I believe that after the study trip concluded, they likely began to understand what biodiversity looks like”, shared Mr. Kien. Mr. Thien also eagerly shared his enthusiasm for the farming model that avoids using pesticides to nurture biodiversity and environmental friendliness on the Stone Hill farm, in contrast with conventional farming practices that he has been applying previously. 

"Humans are a part of nature, and so are all living beings" was the motto for farming of Dr. Phuoc. Indeed, a respectful attitude towards the ecosystem and biodiversity on the farm is the secret to sustainable farming for long-term bountiful harvests. 

The “Regenerative cocoa production to support livelihood development in Vietnam” (ReCoPro) project is implemented by GIZ Vietnam, Puratos Grand-Place Vietnam, and partners under the scope of develoPPP - a funding programme of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).