Local Perspectives: An Experimental Cacao Plantation
By Cassie Sevigny
The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience water variability, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses when droughts occur. Improved understanding of these feedbacks will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers respond to water scarcity. The Grauna hotel was the CAP team headquarters June-August 2019 when the household surveys were undertaken. Grauna is surrounded by a rainforest preserve owned by the Executive Committee for Cacau Crop Planning, or CEPLAC (1), a federal agricultural agency which conducts research on sustainable and competitive cacao cultivation and shares that information with farmers. Alfredo, the hotel owner, received permission from CEPLAC to show members of the CAP team, including myself, the forest and the experimental cacao plantation within it.
Early one morning in July, Alfredo led us to a gap in the fence line that separated Grauna from the preserve. We walked straight into an old cacao plantation. Brown, dry, wrinkled stems and leaves drooped from palms and cacao and many other trees. It was vassoura de bruxa. “The plague vassoura de bruxa came from here,” Thais translated Alfredo’s explanation. “People think it came from Bahia, but it was brought to Bahia from here,” she said. The fungal disease spells disaster for the cacao trees, but has also spread to other crops in many regions and many countries. The disease causes sections of the plant to die. The resulting branches and fronds look like a witch’s broom, which is exactly what vassoura de bruxa means. No treatment exists yet to kill the fungus, so dead sections must be trimmed from the plants manually.
In the middle of the forest we came across a partial clearing in the undergrowth. Rows of short cacao trees extended to either side of the path. These trees were healthier than those at the edge of the forest with brown pods and wilting branches. Here CEPLAC had planted a small experimental forest with clonal varieties of cacao. Clonal cacao production involves propagating the trees from cuttings instead of seeds, allowing farmers to save space by growing them closer together (2). Production of shade-grown varieties also incentivizes farmers to keep rainforest on their property instead of deforesting. The risk of any clonal agriculture lies in the shared genes of each plant: they share the same weaknesses and strengths.
CEPLAC uses these small plantations to test which varieties grow better under existing conditions. Whether it’s for improved water efficiency, productivity under changing climate conditions, or resistance to vassoura de bruxa for increased yield, experimental information is useful to farmers responding to the world’s demand for chocolate.
2) Sodré, George Andrade, & Gomes, Augusto Roberto Sena. (2019). Cocoa propagation, technologies for production of seedlings. Revista Brasileira de Fruticultura, 41(2), e-782. https://www.scielo.br/scielo.php?pid=S0100-29452019000201003&script=sci_arttext&tlng=en