Impacts of Witches' Broom on Cacao Farming in Bahia

What would you do if the price of chocolate doubled? We often think of chocolate as an inexhaustible resource which is not subject to the threats of environmental conditions, disease, or extinction. The truth is, that like any other living species on this planet, Theobroma cacao is subject to the laws of nature. Cacao in its native area of the Amazon has already become affected by disease, decreasing its production to nearly nothing. Now another important large-scale growth area for cacao, the south of Bahia, is being hit with the same disease pressures. Production of cacao is slowing quickly, and if something is not done, will continue to slow. This decrease in production will likely affect not just those whose incomes were based on cacao farming, but on consumers around the world. If something is not done, chocolate could become a scarce commodity.
Bahia, a state of Brazil

Although cacao originated in the western Amazon Rainforest, the beans, which are used to make chocolate, were not originally the part of the plant that was eaten. In the Amazon, natives ate the sweet pulp of the plant, leaving the beans on the ground to be dispersed by animals. Cacao was brought to Central America probably as a snack food by Amazonians or by primates who spit out the bitter beans. In Central America, near southern Mexico and Guatemala indigenous people began using the beans of cocao to make a chocolate, often mixed with vanilla or chili peppers. The people of Central America have drunk cacao for nearly 4000 years, and Mayans began cultivating cacao in southern Mexico and areas of Honduras and Guatemala in about 1500 B.C..
In the 1700s, cacao was planted in southern Bahia, a state of Brazil containing part of the now endangered Atlantic rainforest, the Mata Atlântica, and a similar tropical climate as that of the Amazon, but separated by a dry savanna. This savanna created a genetic barrier between the Bahian and Amazonian cacao, preventing transmission of disease between the populations. The cacao in the western Amazon was extremely susceptible to disease because of its high frequency in its area of origin, and became infected with a fungal disease commonly known as witches' broom. The fungal disease spread to Surinam in 1895, Ecuador in 1918, Trinidad in 1928, and Venezuela in 1937. Witches' broom is caused by Crinipellis perniciosa. This pathogenic fungus causes the tree to send many small shoots from its flower clusters and branch tips as well as infecting the pods, making them unusable. Witches' broom severely reduces the ability of trees to produce pods filled with beans. The onset of this disease in the Amazon severely decreased the cacao production in its indigenous area.
Cocoa pods infected with frosty pod rot disease
Cocoa pods infected with frosty pod rot disease

Due to the decrease in yields of the cacao in the Amazon and its other areas of production, the demand for cacao produced in Bahia increased steeply. Farmers in the south of Bahia, realizing their opportunity for fortune, planted cacao on their land as well, forming a monoculture of cacao in the south of Bahia. The farmers in Bahia became rich with the success of the monoculture, yet their incomes were balanced precariously on the success of their cacao crops. In 1930, cacao taxes provided 30% of the state of Bahia's income. Although monocultures of successful crops seem like a good idea in theory, in reality, they are extremely vulnerable to disease due to their small degree of genetic variance. In 1989 witches' broom reached Bahia. The monoculture that had been created in Bahia was extremely susceptible to the fungal disease. Witches' broom spread quickly, infecting nearly all of the crops and decreasing yields in Bahia by 60% from 1990 to 1994. Along with the destruction of the cacao monoculture in the south of Bahia, witches' broom devastated the economies of the cities the success of cacao had once brought wealth.

Agricultura Orgânica - Rio do Engenho - Ilhéus - BA
Since the arrival of witches' broom to Bahia in 1989, there have been several responses to cope with the devastation of the cacao crops. Many farmers have cut down portions of the rainforest where the cacao grew in order to plant coffee or make cattle pastures. This type of cacao cultivation is known as cabruca cacao  and is particularly important because it is part of a more biodiverse environment which renders the cacao much less susceptible to disease pressure. Other farmers have simply abandoned their farms, leaving workers jobless and diseased crops untended. Some farmers have begun to plant intercrop systems in an effort to diversify their incomes and break up their disease-vulnerable monocultures. Since the onset of witches' broom, researchers have been developing disease-resistant clones that are now being used experimentally in some farms in Bahia, leading to an increase in yields. Since 1989, witches' broom has had a tremendous effect on not only the cacao yields in Bahia, but on the economics of the towns which once depended on its high demand. In towns which once depended heavily on income from surrounding cacao farms, banks have shut down due to lack of money, poverty is widespread, and many inhabitants have simply abandoned their homes and farms in search of opportunity elsewhere.

Cacau Parazinho

Many cacao farms in the vicinity of Una have been diversified with other crops to create intercrop systems less vulnerable to witches' broom infection. Polycultures are advantageous for both economic and ecologic reasons. Diversification of crops diversifies the income of the farmer as well as reducing disease pressure on crops.

Fazenda Bom Jesus is a 140-hectare certified organic orchard which is approximately 40 years old. In this farm, cacao is interplanted with açaí palm (Euterpe oleracea), and rubber trees. The cacao on this farm has also been grafted with clones resistant to witches' broom. Grafting was a big advance because these grafted clones produce fruit within one year of grafting and have superior characteristics such as disease resistance.

Fazenda Ararauna is another farm near Una along the Aliança River. The farm is approximately 100 hectares and also includes successful intercrop systems. Cacao is planted with annatto, cupuaçu, açai palm, peach palm, banana trees, guaraná, papaya, mangosteen, and jackfruit.

Areas which were diversified with different crop varieties were affected to a much smaller scale by the arrival of witches' broom in Bahia. In Ituberá, the land is divided into smaller, more diverse farms, which are less vulnerable to witches' broom. Nucleo Coloniala de Ituberá comprises 6000 hectares divided into small plots for many families and individual farmers. The farms in the area not only grow cacao, but also cloves, guaraná, mangosteen, cupuaçu, manioc, annatto, mango, black pepper, papaya, bananas, açaí palm, corn, and coconut palms. Very little of the cacao in the community has been infected with witches' broom.

Fazenda Mia Motto is another highly diverse farm in the area. The farm is 30 years old and covers 60 hectares of land. The owner was the first farmer in the region to plant intercrop systems. Cupuaçu, mangosteen, rumbutan, açerola, gravolia, black peppers, cloves, and allspice are grown on the farm now. Cacao is planted on the farm in an intercrop system with black pepper, bananas, and papaya. The cacao on the farm has been infected with very little witches' broom due to the immense diversity of the crops.

Near Camumu an indigenous group called Pataxó Ran-Ran cultivates 308 hectares split among ten families. The community was established 13 years ago and has been diversified with coffee, cacao, peach palm, beans, corn, banana, manioc, sweet potatoes, and jackfruit. The members of the tribe also raise pigs and bees. This indigenous group sells their products in Camumu and although their cacao has been infected with witches' broom, the tribe has other sources of income to take its place.

Large monocultures of cacao have been found to be more susceptible to disease, and therefore dramatically less productive. Farms under 50 hectares account for 44% of all the farm land, but for 50% of the total production. Farms over 100 hectares account for under 5% of all the farms, for 31% of all cacao land, and only 26% of production. This negative correlation between the area of cultivation and the production is shown very clearly in the town of Camacã. After realizing the incredible value of cacao when it was brought to Bahia, the few powerful families who owned much of the land began planting only cacao on their large farms. The families and their farms were devastated by the arrival of witches' broom in 1989, which affected their crops severely. The town has suffered as well, its only income having been from the monocultures of cacao. The town had at one time six banks, and now has only four. Much rainforest in the area has been cut down for cattle pasture or coffee crops.

Fazenda Rainha do Sul was founded in 1920 and is made up of 143 hectares of farmland. The owner of the farm is Maria Rosalina Moura Pinto, a member of one of the families once wealthy from cacao production in the area. Her father owned 22 cacao farms in Camacã which Maria and her nine brothers still own. In 2001, the farm produced only 500 arrobas(1 Brasilian arroba is equal to 15 kg.)  of cacao, about a tenth of its production before its cacao became infected. Workers have begun to abandon the farm as well because of the lack of profit. The farm used to have 50 workers, and now has only three. The area that formerly housed workers has been transformed into a small inn in order to make extra money. No other crops are being planted to diversify this land, and it is being used experimentally now for resistant clones of cacao. The National Program for Cacao Research and Extension (CEPLAC ) has recently grafted new varieties of cacao from Trinidad and Tobago on four hectares of land.

Joaquim Carvalho Neto is a member of another one of the powerful families which once dominated the cacao market in Camacã. The effects of witches' broom are strikingly apparent on his two farms as well. Fazenda Trindage is a 215 hectare farm which was cultivated 15 years ago. Production on this farm was 6000 arrobas before the arrival of witches' broom and has since dropped to 400 arrobas. The number of workers has also dropped from twelve to two. Neto's other farm, Fazenda Boa Esperança, is 350 hectares and was cultivated 25 years ago. Its maximum production was 13000 arrobas, and has dropped to 1500 arrobas in recent years. During harvest season, the farm used to boast over 80 workers, and has now dwindled to three.

Neto's father had owned five monocultures of cacao which together produced 15,000 arrobas of cacao in 1971 and by 1989 had risen to 48,000. In these farms and nearly all the farms in this region, all the efforts of the people were put into creating monocultures of cacao which have since been destroyed by witches' broom. Neto tried to introduce witches' broom resistant clones into his farms, but could not afford it due to his financial destruction.

Hope for Cacao
Despite the tragic effects of witches' broom on the cacao in the state of Bahia, production has finally begun to increase in recent years due to disease-resistant clones, intercrop systems, and companies dedicated solely to the improvement of cacao. The earlier-mentioned CEPLAC is a governmentally funded organization which was founded in 1957 with the purpose of agricultural education and research dealing particularly with cacao and witches' broom. CEPLAC is also responsible for much or the recent clone research which has led to disease resistant cacao varieties. Data of CEPLAC indicate that in 2001 from the period of January until July, 700,000 sacks (One sack is equal to 60 kilograms of cacao) were gathered in the harvest. In this same period of the year 2000, less than 260,000 sacks had been gathered. These data indicate that it is likely that the harvest of 2001 exceeded the projected value of 1.3 million sacks. It was projected that approximately 78 thousand tons of cacao would be produced in 2001, compared to the 58.4 a thousand produced in the same period of the 2000. The estimates of the producers were that the main harvest in 2001, which begins in October, would increase by the same amount as the harvest of 2000. The cacao region of Bahia would register 130 thousand tons of production in 2001, 21.5% more than in 2000, which produced 107 thousand tons. In 1999, the production registered only 99 thousand tons. These recent figures show a clear increase in cacao production in recent years, indicating that perhaps there is a chance for the cacao in Bahia to someday reach its past state.

Lindsey Evans

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