Throughout centuries the fruits of the cacao tree have played a fundamental role in the cosmology of indigenous American peoples as source of food and family livelihoods (Durant-Forest, 1967). For a long period of time, the cacao seeds have been considered as a possible means to improve the quality of life of small-scale farmers who dedicate themselves to the conservation and production of cacao.
The indigenous peoples’ sacred vision of cacao seeds is reflected in the conservative management of cacao plantations and in the vast amount of stories, legends and traditions which refer to the tree and its magical fruits (De la Cruz and Pereira, 2009; Cacao Mexico, 2016; ANECACAO, 2016; Motamayor et al., 2002). In Costa Rica, the Bribris, Cabecares and Malecus indigenous peoples still preserve traditions that involve the use of cacao in special ceremonies of physical and spiritual cleansing whereby women are granted the primary role in society as the ultimate representation of spirituality.
Holistic management of cacao at danger
In addition to reviving ancient traditions, the indigenous peoples have also preserved another precious treasure: the biodiversity of different cacao species on their territories. The Costarican tropical rainforests host some of the best varieties of high quality and flavour cacao in the world (International Cocoa Organization, 2016). These cacao varieties are one of the most important legacies that ancestral generations have bequeathed to the current inhabitants of the territories.
This rich legacy encompasses the vision of the cacao tree as a protector of life, practical instructions for the use of cacao in human consumption and ceremonies and the plantation management based on the use of accompanying or protective trees for the cacao plant. This traditional way of managing cacao farms as a holistic system, survived many generations while strengthening the relation between the people and their environment.
Cacao grows very well in the company of and under the shade of other trees, and since ancient times it is known that other species which are considered beneficial should be preserved during the ground preparation for sowing. A common example is the species Gliricidia cepium which is known under the name of “Madre Cacao” (“Cacao Mother”) in some regions of Central America. The “Cacao Mother” grows next to the cacao, protecting and nourishing it during its entire life.
The above mentioned characteristic of cacao made it one of the favourite species of smallholders to grow food for their families and generate additional income. However, the trend of standardization and specialization as fostered by international trade has pushed the farmers to adopt less diversified systems. At the end of the 70s, cacao monocultures were the main method of producing cacao in Costa Rica (Salazar, 1967). This development towards monocultures has engendered a considerable loss of biodiversity as well as a loss of ancestral knowledge, contributing to the outbreak of cocoa diseases and lower yields (Leakey et al., 2005; Boa et al., 2000; Belsky and Siebert, 2003). Still today, monocultures of cocoa have big issues with a high incidence of pests and diseases.
The return towards the biodiverse systems of cacao agroforestry
Throughout many centuries, the cacao tree was able to satisfy the human needs to produce food, medicine, preserve traditions and protect biodiversity. The current global needs require us to learn from the conservationist indigenous vision by reviving biodiverse systems of cacao agroforestry adapted to today’s new challenges: increase the productivity, biodiversity conservation and carbon sequestration.
Despite these huge benefits, following the vision of holistic management based on diversified agroforest systems holds many challenges. The lack of knowledge in agroecological practices and the difficult access to plant material are the main barriers of rural communities to grow diverse agroforestry systems. In many regions of the world, it is getting especially difficult for smallholders to have access to a high diversity of non-GMO and native plant species and varieties. These neglected and underutilized species often feature higher nutritional and ecological value compared to the few highly commercialized crop varieties.
Cacao Malecu Project
Motivated to change this, I have started the Cacao Malecu Project in Costa Rica together with Noémie Graas, an environmental scientist from Luxembourg. We are supporting an indigenous community in Costa Rica to grow and manage their own diversified agroforest. Thanks to the support of the WFSC’s Ambassador Program, we have been able to build a nursery for the reproduction of a vast diversity of native species of high nutritional and ecological value and contribute to the conservation of agrobiodiversity in the territory. The plant species will be available for free to all smallholders in the region.
In addition of facilitating access to neglected plant species, we are implementing workshops on agroecological practices and sustainable cocoa agroforest management and sensitizing the people on the value and benefits of biodiversity. In the context of our agrobiodiversity conservation project, we have been researching plant species of high nutritional and ecological value that grow well in association with the cocoa trees. Up to date, we have identified 18 plant species of high potential to add value to the cocoa agroforests that are also culturally enrooted and are of economic importance. It was a big challenge to collect many of these neglected tree species which are being abandoned despite their high value.
I have travelled through Costa Rica, visiting different organizations involved in biodiversity conservation and wandering through forests to find these species and bring them to the Malecu territory. In this way, together with the WFSC we have surmounted one of the biggest barriers to bring back biodiversity to the cocoa agroforests in the Malecu territory. This is one small step, but it holds huge potential benefits for the local community; improving the local food sovereignty and diet diversification, contributing to the preservation of valuable genetic resources for future generations and increasing their resilience to climate change.
- ANECACAO (2016) Historia del cacao en Ecuador
- Belsky J, Siebert S (2003) Cultivating cacao: Implications of sun-grown cacao on local food security and environmental sustainability
- Boa E, Bently J, Stonehouse J (2000) Cacao and neighbour trees in Ecuador. CABI, UK, 48 p
- Cacao Mexico (2016) Historia del cacao
- De la Cruz E, Pereira I (2009) Historias Saberes y Sabores en torno al cacao (Theobroma cacao L.) en la subregión de Barlovento
- Durant-Forest J (1967) El cacao entre los aztecas
- International Cocoa Organization (2016) Fine or flavour cocoa
- Leakey R, Tchoundjeu Z, Chreckenberg K, Shacketon S, Shackleton C (2005) Agroforestry tree products (AFTPs): Targeting poverty reduction and enhance livelihoods
- Motamayor JC, Risterucci AM, Lopez PA, Ortiz CF, Moreno A, Lanaud C (2002) Cacao domestication I: the origin of the cacao cultivated by the Mayas
- Salazar JM (1967)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jorge Calderón is an agroecologist with a diploma from the National University of Costa Rica. He has worked on many agricultural projects that aim to improve the well-being of marginal communities in Costa Rica. As president of the student's association, he has led a project to support the Malecu people. Out of this collaboration, strong friendships with the Malecu have developed and the idea for the present cocoa project was born. He is a passionate ethnobotanist with expertise in community building and sustainability and brings the necessary local knowledge to the project development.
"The experience of the agrobiodiversity conservation project was an enriching and fruitful opportunity that has allowed me to encounter new plant species with huge ecological and nutritional potential and moreover, establish a network of people and organisations that work in the field of biodiversity protection in Costa Rica. I am very grateful for the valuable support of the Ambassador program, which made all this possible. It motivates me to know that with a small investment great things with a long-lasting impact can be achieved."