Changing land and labour relations on Ghana’s cocoa farms

Written by: Joseph Awetori Yaro, Joseph Kofi Teye, and Steve Wiggins

Pioneering cocoa farmers in Ghana used and adapted existing social norms and family networks to acquire large areas of land and the labour to farm it. The resulting development of cocoa farming was a remarkable story of African innovation and enterprise that made the ‘Gold Coast’, as it was known then, into one of the most prosperous parts of Africa by the mid-twentieth century. This blog explores how access to land and labour for cocoa production has changed over time in the face of a diminishing forest frontier – and weakening reliance upon the extended family network.

When Ghanaian farmers began to plant cocoa for commercial production in the 1880s, their main concerns were finding land to plant and mobilising labour to do so. The first cocoa farmers formed groups of extended family members (led by an elder male) or individuals in the community to pool funds to buy large areas of land. Labour was recruited from extended family, collective farmer groups and, for more arduous activities, from migrants. None of this labour needed to be paid in cash: their reward came from entitlement to shares of the harvest (family), the expectation that those working would inherit the farm (family, lineage), reciprocal provision of labour (collective gangs), and a share of the proceeds of the harvest (annual migrants). In all such arrangements, the implicit labour contract was embedded in social relations, and corresponding rights and obligations.

In the old Western Region of Ghana, now the Western North Region, cocoa production started in the 1940s and continued up until 2019. When production began in this region, land was abundant, but for the past two decades that has no longer been the case. The forest frontier is exhausted and soil fertility is depleting, with increasing pest and disease burdens. As land has become less available, the land tenure systems have also changed – from one based on community relationships enabling farmers to acquire land in groups, to more private, individual, and nuclear family ownership. Traditions of labour recruitment have also changed, moving away from a reliance on extended family networks and community groups, to increasingly using paid workers.

To explore how land and labour has been mobilised for cocoa in Sefwi in the Western North Region from the 1960s to the late 2010s, an APRA study asked: What are the current norms? How have they evolved? Why did they change? The research, carried out from November 2019, to January 2020, aimed to record how land and labour for cocoa was obtained in 2019 – within the context of changes to land, to the local natural environment, and to local economy and society.

Changing traditions

The study established that most cocoa plots in Sefwi in the 2010s had been inherited from immediate family. This contrasts to the tradition of group/community ownership of cocoa plantations, as seen in the 1960s and earlier. Another clear difference is that, in the 2010s, almost all inheritance followed patrilineal norms, meaning that land is passed from parents to children and from husbands to wives. This is a surprising turn-around from the longstanding norm of land passing through ‘maternal inheritance’ lines, meaning that land passes from the maternal uncle to his nephews and nieces. In the past, it was the extended family of nieces and nephews who would subsequently take over the farm – and this tradition ensured a supply of family labour. On the other hand, according to study participants, matrilineal inheritance led to family disputes – regarding wives and sons missing out on inheritance of land they had worked on – and paternal inheritance is argued to have helped address this problem.

The study also found that most of the labour to cultivate cocoa in the 2010s came from the farmer himself and to some extent, the immediate nuclear family. Extra hands needed for peak seasons, such as harvest, came from hired gangs and individuals as opposed to extended family or collective groups of farmers. It therefore appears that with an increasing trend towards patrilineal inheritance, the social relations linked to traditional ‘matrilineal’ inheritance have given way to monetised labour hiring, and extra labour has increasingly been bought from the market.

Why are land and labour relations changing?

In addition to the diminishing forestry frontier for cocoa production, Ghana, like the rest of the continent, is undergoing increasing urbanisation and development of non-farm activity. This has created greater opportunity for family members to sell their labour to others and withdraw from production, leading farmers to increasingly rely on the market. Another important development regards the laws against child labour and the requirement of children to attend school. This, again, has led farmers to hire local youths and migrants – who have often spent most of their lives on cocoa farms – to supply the required labour demand.

The interest of families in ensuring the welfare of their wives and children, a derivative of modern western individualisation, is clashing with traditional norms of an ‘extended family’ focus. Labour is no longer to be found most conveniently within the lineage and extended family, but from the market – hence, the bonds of the lineage matter less than they did, and so an inheritance practice that bound the inheritors into lineage obligations makes less sense than it once did. Instead, today, it is simpler, cheaper, and clearer for a landholder to pass the rights to cultivate on to their widow and offspring, keeping all within the nuclear family. That is what the survey shows to be happening.

For more information, find the full paper, here: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wdp.2024.100584