Why you should care

Growing cacao under old Brazilian trees is saving ancient forestland and creating a guilt-free reason to enjoy chocolate.

Looking for guilt-free chocolate? Well, maybe there’s no such thing, but if you source it to Brazil’s Bahia state, chances are good that you at least won’t be contributing to the destruction of tropical forestland.

That’s because an old method of growing cacao underneath the ancient trees has suddenly become new again, and it’s actually helping to preserve Brazil’s most endangered forest.

At the Terra Vista settlement in the south of Bahia, residents have set up small gardens and use a clearing in the forest for a soccer field. But otherwise, it consists of old trees. Or so it appears at first. Snuggling quietly beneath the mighty, centuries-old Atlantic Forest are hundreds of cacao plants with big, waxy leaves and even bigger orange fruit.

In the 1900s, cacao barons smoked beside pianos in grand homes, feasting on the benefits of what Brazil’s great writer Jorge Amado called ‘chocolate gold.’

It wasn’t always like this.

Brazil, the original home of the cacao plant, grew rich by cutting down miles of trees and creating huge plantations. Bahia prospered in the 1900s; ladies strode beneath white silk parasols, while cacao barons smoked beside pianos in grand homes, feasting on the benefits of what Brazil’s great writer Jorge Amado called “chocolate gold.”

But disaster struck almost a century later in 1989, with the arrival of the witches’-broom: a plant deformity, caused by phytoplasms, that attacked the crops and spread for miles, until little remained but acre upon acre of brown, stinking, rotting fruit.

Group of women posing for camera outdoors during the day

Generations of females working on a cocoa plantation, Bahia province, Brazil, July 1991

The nearly 800,000 farmworkers headed to the cities, while barons abandoned their plantation mansions, leaving the hulking carcasses of better days littering the forests. Brazilian cacao had met a putrid end in Bahia.

Today, the Bahian chocolate market is starting over with a focus on quality over quantity, led by an agroforestry strategy called cabruca.

Cabruca is a strategy for shade-grown chocolate. Like the shade-grown coffee in places like Colombia, Guatemala and Jamaica, cabruca means a major agricultural industry actually needs to save the oldest tree survivors of the forest.

The word cabruca is a mixture of the Portuguese words cacau, or cacao, and brocar, which means “to drill holes into.” In essence, rather than clear-cutting, cabruca means putting little holes in the existing forest canopy, allowing cacao to grow underneath.

Experts estimate that while 80 percent of the Amazon’s original forest still stands, only 8 percent of the Atlantic Forest remains.

It’s an old practice, in use centuries ago when it was cheaper than cutting down the forest. While the original 19th-century cacao boom caused major deforestation, this time around the largest Atlantic Forest trees are being left alone. And instead of clear-cutting, chocolate is being planted at the base of the trees.

Cabruca uses the remnants of the forest to foster an economy for producers, 75 percent of which are small family farmers, says Manfred Muller, the technical coordinator of CEPLAC, Brazil’s national commission on cacao.

The environmental significance is enormous. The Atlantic Forest belt, which runs down the eastern part of Brazil, is the most threatened in the country — much more so than its more famous cousin, the Amazon rainforest. Experts estimate that while 80 percent of the Amazon’s original forest still stands, only 8 percent of the Atlantic Forest remains. And while the deforestation rate appears to have dropped in the Amazon, it’s gone up in the Atlantic Forest.

Conservationists along the Brazilian coast have been desperately seeking to inject economic value into the remaining trees. And cabruca appears to do that.

Group of women posing

Cocoa plantation, Bahia province, Brazil

“Cabruca was and is largely responsible for the preservation of what remains of the Atlantic Forest of Bahia,” said Eduardo Salles, the state’s former secretary of agriculture.

Making it work has required tweaking of Brazil’s national Forest Code. A state law passed last month in Bahia alters the controversial code to allow for the “management” of shade-providing trees over cacao plantings. Farmers can now trim the centuries-old native trees like a bonsai, creating optimal shade and sunlight.

Today, out of the 520,000 hectares of cacao planted in Bahia, 400,000 qualify as cabruca, said Muller, so the switch to a new process has major consequences for cacao production and the integrity of the forest.

Entering into the vacuum left by the cacao bust, MST members saw the opportunity to take over the rotten cacao plantations.

But the approach, well-suited to smaller family farms, has its share of controversy. Some of cabruca’s main proponents and practitioners are members of the Landless Workers’ Movement of Brazil, called the MST, a polarizing movement to occupy underutilized agricultural land still owned by others. Entering into the vacuum left by the cacao bust, MST members saw the opportunity to take over the rotten cacao plantations.

“If not for the cacao crisis, we would have never arrived here,” says regional MST leader Joelson Ferreira de Oliveira. In this way, cabruca also allows some of Brazil’s most needy people to help start up cacao production again.

And the chocolate they are making is organic and sustainable. The Terra Vista settlement is still playing with its recipe and not quite market-ready, but it’s getting close. Its 50 percent cacao chocolate bars are brittle, but with an earthy taste and a bitter bite, which is close to the flavor profile of 75 percent bars.

The witches’-broom disease remains a threat. But with management of the plants and cross breeding, only 7 percent of Bahia’s cacao crop was lost to the blight last year.

Like carbon credits or ecotourism, cabruca creates economic incentives to save the forest anywhere cacao is grown, offering a delicious reason to protect the Atlantic Forest.

Shannon Sims is a freelance writer living in Brazil, and a recent Forest & Society Fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs.

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