Chocolate: A Sweet Solution to Tropical Deforestation?

Cacao tree. Credit: Rane Cortez

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Belem, Brazil. She has just moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area.

This post is the third in a series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

By Rane Cortez

I want you to stop and take a moment to think about chocolate. Or, if you’re like me, I want you to continue thinking about chocolate for another moment or two. What’s the first thing you imagine? I bet it has something to do with a smooth, creamy square of deliciousness slowly melting on your tongue. I can understand that; it’s what I think of too. However, I recently had a conversation that changed the way I think about my favorite dessert. Now when I think about chocolate, in addition to thinking about brownies, I think about saving rainforests and fighting carbon pollution.

This week I sat down to talk with Ilson and Iron, leaders of a local agricultural cooperative in São Felix do Xingu, here in the Brazilian Amazon, that helps its members plant cacao – the fruit that eventually becomes the delicious treat you’re now craving. The cooperative, known as CAPPRU, aims to help family farmers earn a good living while promoting environmental protection in the Amazon.

Ilson (left) and Iron (right), leaders of CAPPRU. Credit: Rane Cortez.

“When our first projects were getting started, back in 1994, many people didn’t believe that cacao could be a sustainable livelihood for family farmers,” says Ilson, CAPPRU’s Director. “Some people even said the idea was foolish.”

“The problem was that people here come from a ranching culture,” continues Iron, President of CAPPRU. “So that was a major barrier.”

“The culture of the people was ranching – it was to clear for pastures and raise cattle,” agrees Ilson. “But not anymore.”

CAPPRU managed to convince some early adopters to plant cacao on their small farms and now there is more demand for seeds and technical assistance than the cooperative can provide. Ilson explains that the economics of cacao for family farmers just makes good sense, and when people started to see that, they started to change what they were doing.

“If a farmer has about 5 hectares and he wants to raise cattle, if he wants to have a good control and management of his herd, he will have 5, maximum 8, head of cattle,” he says. “On the same piece of land, the farmer could have more than 5,000 cacao trees, each producing a kilo of cacao per year.”

According to Ilson, the cattle could bring in about $2,500 per year while the cacao would bring in about $10,000 per year. “And with cacao, the farmer also gets other products from the shade trees, like açai and other fruits, Brazil nuts, rubber, and wood.”

“I visited a farmer this past week who hasn’t deforested his land since about 2004,” says Ilson. “He stopped raising cows and now his property is practically 90% restored and all the time he is planting various native tree species.”

This type of forest restoration can help transition damaged and degraded pasture land back into healthy forest cover, while providing both short- and long-term income. The cacao provides income after about three years while the trees that shade the cacao can be managed for timber and other products over the long-term. If enough farmers shifted to cacao, São Felix could begin to recover important habitat for Amazonian species and help combat carbon pollution since the trees suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere as they grow.

According to Ilson and Iron, the soils throughout São Felix do Xingu are good for cacao, and the potential for expansion is enormous. However, some barriers still exist.

For starters, financing is a problem: credit lines for small farmers need to start being paid back after two years, while the first cacao fruits aren’t ready to be harvested until the third year. Additionally, there aren’t enough seeds to go around and farmers need technical assistance to learn to manage their crop.

To help overcome these barriers, The Nature Conservancy is helping to negotiate a deal between CAPPRU and Cargill that will provide seeds for around 100 small farms to begin planting cacao as well as assigning two technical staff to CAPPRU to help farmers learn to manage their new crop and comply with environmental legislation. It’s the start of something that we hope will grow over time into an example for family farmers throughout the Amazon.

Cortez taking carbon measurements of cacao trees mixed with native tree species. Credit: TNC.

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Nicole Levins is an online media manager at The Nature Conservancy.