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Following the Chocolate Trail: Cacao in the Amazon and the Origins of a Popular Confection

Kerry LePain, LACS MA’17

Figure 1: The Transamazon Highway at the crossroads of rainforest, ranching, agriculture, and regrowth

Where does our food come from? I immediately think of two ways to answer this question – one in the sense of where the food was grown, and another farther off response concerning where a specific foodstuff or plant originated. It was this second question that brought me bumping down an ocher, dusty road on a motorcycle, arms wrapped around the waist of Seu Pedro, a proud grandfather and pioneering farmer to the Transamazon Highway region in the Brazilian State of Pará, as he took me on a show-and-tell trip through his cacao forests, locally known in Medicilândia for their distinctive cabruca agroforestry configuration.

Figure 2: A rich red earth side road leads toward Seu Pedro’s agroforestry plots and a towering skyline of rainforest trees.

While much of the margins along the Transamazon Highway are lined with sweeping expanses of electric green pasture, palms, and equally garish red earth, our trip along a northern side road led through increasingly towering and lush vegetation. Bright yellow piles of recently harvested cacao pods lay in piles, dappled by green light filtering down through the boughs of the surrounding cacao trees. Following Seu Pedro as we now walked through the forest, he gestured toward the crunching leaves underfoot—natural fertilizer from cacao and larger trees that served as a breeding ground for cacao’s main pollinators—and to massive fallen bromeliads that recently tumbled from the crown of a Brazil Nut Tree about one hundred feet above.

Figure 3: A scene from the cabruca agroforestry patch, as collected cacao is piled atop leaves beneath the rainforest trees.

Pedro’s cacao agroforestry belongs to a larger regional history intricately interwoven with the environment and is part of a growing drive to work with(in) the Amazon’s native vegetation and ecosystems. Brazil’s 2012 Forest Code requires that agricultural properties maintain an area of native vegetation as “Legal Reserve” corresponding to quotas established on a regional basis. At least on paper, landholdings within the “Legal Amazon” should reserve 80% of their total area as a forest preserve. As an answer to the question of environmental origin, cacao occupies a privileged place within Amazonian agriculture under the Forest Code. Cacao is native to the Amazon, and cacao trees count as reforestation and count toward the native vegetation “Legal Reserve” quota. Medicilândia, a municipality at Kilometer 90 of the Transamazon Highway largely blessed with rich soil, has leaned heavily into cacao agriculture, earning the reputation of Brazil’s “Cacao Capital,” while other neighboring communities have followed suit in attempts at prosperity and a rewrite of the Transamazon’s failed agriculture narrative.

Brazil’s military regime began construction of the Transamazon Highway in the early 1970s as part of a large-scale agro-colonization scheme designed to alleviate land crunches and leftist worries elsewhere in the nation, occupy the vast “empty” Amazon interior, and create a new Brazilian breadbasket. Much attention was focused on the modernization of the Amazon—long perceived as decadent, folkloric, and lackadaisical—but little planning attention went toward understanding the micro-regional specificities of a greater region that covers roughly 30% of South America’s total area. Erroneously viewed as one big forest, the Amazon is a conjunction of highly diverse—and diverging—forests, rivers, climates, and soil types, constituting a variety of ecosystems and agricultural potentials. When limited preliminary soil analyses along the Transamazon Highway around Medicilândia indicated rich soil, these results were extrapolated as representative of the entire region, and used as justification for agricultural projects without properly taking into account climactic variation, potential pests and diseases, and the possibility of soil inconsistency. The military regime and its colonization agency, INCRA, recruited large numbers of colonists from the South and Northeast and incentivized waves of commodities because they grew well elsewhere in Brazil. Medicilândia’s farmers tried their hands with rice, beans, black pepper, tomatoes, guaraná, coffee, and sugarcane, but their efforts were frustrated by heavy rains, hungry animals, diseases, and patchy soil conditions. The dirt roads frequently washed out following heavy Amazonian rains, and construction on the gargantuan network of planned roads could not keep pace with demand and stalled out after 1974 when the government prematurely classified the entire colonization project as a failure and largely left agricultural colonists in the Amazon, Brazil’s Wild West of sorts, to their own devices.

Distinctly wild cacao trees grow throughout the forests surrounding Medicilândia, but it was in the late 1970s that several colonists from the State of Bahia, historically associated with cacao agriculture, planted Medicilândia’s first commercial cacao groves. Elisangela Trzeciak—a regional government representative, member of a nascent cacao cooperative, and a daughter raised between ranching and cacao agriculture—claimed that cacao used to fetch a price equal to a kilogram of meat, an important benchmark as the trees fell and the Transamazon region increasingly gave way to cattle ranching. As with other previous commodities, Medicilândia’s cacao farmers have confronted obstacles to their success with cacao: at home in the Amazon, cacao is subject to indigenous pests, and prices have at times plummeted so low that some farmers took to cutting their cacao groves and abandoning their investments. By and large, however, Medicilândia’s cacao has been highly productive in comparison to other Brazilian regions and has allowed farmers with smaller plots of land to earn livable incomes that would be impossible with cattle. With groves of cacao trees, farmers are able to maintain gardens alongside and, in some cases, among the trees, supplementing their income and providing additional food for the families. Because cacao naturally grows as an understory tree, beneath the Amazon’s vaulted canopy, cacao naturally lends itself to agroforestry initiatives like Seu Pedro’s cabruca plots, where cacao trees are mixed among native vegetation, remaining hardwoods from before the plot was cleared, and new palms, hardwoods, and vines that have returned, making Seu Pedro’s plot a commercially productive interpretation of the regional forest ecosystem.

Figure 4: A young Brazil Nut Tree already towers above a farmer’s cacao patches.

It is in large part because of this “re-agro-forestation” potential that cacao has increasingly garnered attention within the Amazon, however the environmental services provided by properly managed cacao agroforestry plots and the farmers who work them underscore problems in the ways we purchase and know our food. Fair trade and organic agriculture receive attention as ethical choices available to consumers and as more equitable, environmentally sound means for growers to sell their products. Ivan Dantas came to the Medicilândia region as a young boy with his family with the onset of colonization and has been awarded prizes at Paris’ International Chocolate Fair (Salon du Chocolat) for the quality of his cacao beans. He is a staunch advocate for environmental stewardship of the forest, which he calls his “paradise,” but he also laments the local infeasibility and high cost of organic agriculture. Although the majority of cacao grown in the region is de facto organic, organic certification requires farmers to follow strict sets of regulations, to use specially designated fertilizers, and to front the cost of pricey inspections and certifications. Ivan explained that farmers within the Medicilândia region had inconsistent access to the organic fertilizers necessary for productive cacao, and due to falling yields and exhausted soil, he explained that he was leaving the town’s organic cooperative.

Figure 5: Seu Ivan’s prize winning fermented cacao beans are spread out to dry.

Throughout my time with Medicilândia’s cacao growers, their stories called into question the sufficiency of existing certifications, and the necessity of more comprehensive ways of differentiating products, educating and informing consumers, and justly compensating higher quality cacao and the environmental services that accompany it. Seu Pedro’s cabruca agroforestry cacao, for example, comprises a far greater effort and renders a much larger service than either organic or shade-grown agriculture. His trees are shaded in rehabilitated forest, designed to replicate as best possible the Amazon’s native vegetation while still permitting cacao agriculture. Because an accurate certification and label does not exist, Pedro’s cacao is sold alongside conventional, full sun cacao beans grown on deforested land and he receives no larger monetary return, despite the substantial investment required to restore the forest. While Pedro’s cacao and pocketbook can benefit from increased productivity, pollination, and soil fertility as a result of the restored forest, farmers such as Pedro could stand to benefit a great deal more if their environmental services were labeled, marketed, recognized, and sold.

Figure 6: Seu Pedro beside a large rainforest hardwood planted in his cabruca agroforestry patch

Stepping away from my research in the Amazon, I see the problem come full circle, returning to the question of our food’s origins. While consumers may appreciate picturesque nature photos adorning an organic bar of chocolate or a packet of coffee, they are able to abstract themselves from the realities of labor and production wrapped up in the package. The fundamental problem with these certifications, their fairness, and their value to farmers is that they come with a choice. Save money today, or reward a distant farmer with higher wages? Save money today, or compensate a farmer somewhere for an environmental service? In this sense, justice becomes the prerogative of the consumer, and not the right of the farmers. The burden of the origin of food, how it is made, and caring for the environment that supports it falls to farmers, whereas consumers have the right to choose to not understand their food.