Something that characterizes the Clima-LoCa project is that it involves diverse stakeholders such as producers, cocoa companies, and scientists with diverse expertise such as economists, sociologists, specialists in soils and genetic resources, climate change impacts, and communication experts. Another characteristic is that we work with partners from Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, Belgium, France and the Netherlands. And all of them, from their experience and place of origin, have a common goal: to understand and mitigate the negative impacts of cadmium safety regulations in cocoa and climate change.

In our first edition of “Clima-LoCa in Action”, we spoke with Mirjam Pulleman, a scientist from the Alliance of Bioversity-CIAT, and one of the project leaders. She told us about the characteristics of this regional research, that has a major role for small cocoa farmers and their farms.

What is the focus of the Clima-Loca project?

The project addresses important challenges related to the resilience, competitiveness and inclusiveness of the smallholder cocoa sectors in Colombia, Ecuador y Perú. By resilience we refer to the capacity of the producers and other actors in the value chain to mitigate the negative impacts of EU food safety regulation on cadmium in cocoa, and of climate change. Clima-LoCa started at the beginning of 2020 and is financially supported by the DeSIRA program, which is a global platform for “Development-smart Innovation through Research in Agriculture” of the European Union. The platform seeks to strengthen agricultural innovation based on engagement of end-users and other relevant actors to co-develop and scale solutions that are based on strong science.

The Clima-LoCa project has the ambition to contribute to knowledge on sustainable cacao production systems through interdisciplinary and participatory research and to the mobilization of research results involving farmers, policy makers, value chain actors, and researchers.

“A cacao producer needs to integrate the social, economic, environmental and agronomic aspects to adapt the production systems, and we researchers need to provide a more holistic understanding of the system as well […]” 

What makes this project different from other cocoa research initiatives in the region?

The project is different from other projects in the sense that we use a strong interdisciplinary approach, connecting soil and climate scientists with cacao geneticists, social scientists, economists etcetera to come up with assessments and solutions that consider the different aspects of cacao production.

A cacao producer needs to integrate the social, economic, environmental and agronomic aspects to adapt the production systems, and we researchers need to provide a more holistic understanding of the system as well.

Another difference is that Clima-LoCa builds on the capacity and knowledge that is already available in the countries but tends to be scattered. We integrate existing knowledge and data and complement them by filling important information and knowledge gaps. We make sure to involve sector actors in all stages of the process from research design to data collection and dissemination of the results.

What does the work with producers and field trials consist of?

In Clima-LoCa we are constructing a regional network of research trials and on-farm piloting sites. The two types of field experiments cover different agroecological zones where cacao is produced, across Colombia, Ecuador and Peru.

The on-farm piloting is done in close collaboration with farmers, using a participatory approach. We will test promising solutions to reduce cadmium uptake in cacao considering the reality of the farmers and evaluate the benefits and barriers to adopt different potential mitigation practices.

This may include the use of soil amendments or the evaluation of genetic materials to see if these technologies lead to a reduction in cadmium in cacao beans as well as co-benefits or trade-offs in terms of productivity, soil fertility etc. The results of the research trials and on-farm pilots will be disseminated and together with value chain actors including extension agencies we will develop a strategy to support the adoption and scaling of mitigation measures.

Do you think that the countries were prepared to adapt to the changes in the EU cadmium safety regulations and take advantage of the opportunity to enter the European market with their fine aroma cocoa?

The EU food safety regulation for cadmium in cacao was implemented at the start of 2019. However, this regulation was not a surprise, the countries knew that this was coming already years before. Initially the countries tried to prevent that the regulation would be implemented, questioning the relevance of the regulation for consumer health and based on concerns about the impacts the regulation would have on, already vulnerable, smallholder cacao producers.

At the same time research projects were started by national research organizations, universities and private sector in the countries to develop national cadmium maps, and evaluate technologies to reduce cadmium uptake in cacao. I see that efforts to collaborate at regional level are increasing both at the political level and in the research community.

Clima-LoCa definitely is a great contribution in this respect. The project was developed based on a regional research agenda defined in collaboration with researchers and stakeholders from the 3 countries and with the involvement of European partners.

Has the pandemic caused by Covid-19 affected the development of the project at some point?

Yes, the COVID pandemic has had an impact on the project and caused some delays in its implementation that need to be recovered in the coming years. Especially the field activities were complicated by the mobility restrictions. However we have also discovered that alternative ways of communication and data collection can be applied in some cases. For example we have been able to successfully perform interviews and  questionnaires with actors using virtual methods. And thanks to the wonderful collaboration of farmers and other local partners some of the sampling campaigns in the field sites could continue and samples were shipped to our laboratories for further analysis.

ClimaLoca brings together a multidisciplinary team that works from Belgium, France, The Netherlands, Trinidad and Tobago, in addition to the three focal countries in the South America. Why is it important to work with such a geographically diverse team?

The project team is diverse and complementary in terms of knowledge, , experiences,  and research infrastructure. This has been demonstrated to be a great advantage. The collaboration among the partners has developed very well. The project also created opportunities to involve a group of graduate students who are contributing to the project through their thesis projects  

The quality and the diversity of the team and the openness to share their knowledge, , experiences and existing data has been an important strength, and this characteristic is key to obtain the expected results for the project.