With sustainable cocoa growing, the farmer uses environmentally friendly farming techniques, produces as many or more cocoa beans each year, and benefits from an increased standard of living. Instead of creating a one-crop system, the farmer practices agroforestry, which integrates agricultural methods into the forest’s balance.
Biodiversity and Shade Cacao
Up to 50 different species of fruits can grow in harmony with cacao. In addition to widely traded crops such as bananas, oranges, tangerines, grapefruit and lemon, local fruits such as sapote, mimbra, breadfruit and lichee flourish in cacao orchards. So do coconut trees.
In addition, “shade cacao” farms host the creatures that naturally pollinate cacao, as well as those that feast on cacao pests, and the farms maintain the natural systems that keep the soil fertile. As a result, the farmer does not need to buy or apply chemical pesticides or fertilizers. Animals also do well within a biologically diverse tropical forest, and farmers may rely on some of them for food. See more about the economics of shade cacao farming.
Because of its need for specific growing conditions, 75 percent of all cacao is grown within 8 degrees of the Equator, affecting some of the most biologically diverse areas on the planet. The volume and value of cacao grown each year means that this crop can have a large effect on rainforests. More demand for agroforestry means more conservation of rainforest.
Fortunately, wildlife thrives in shade cacao farms, almost as much as in natural rainforest. These farms act as a buffer zone between rainforest and developed area, supplying habitat for toucans and Amazonian parrots. While sun plantations can disrupt migration patterns, shade cacao farms support migrating birds, such as wood thrushes, scarlet tanagers, Baltimore orioles and more. Shade cacao also can establish corridors that let animals move between forests, permitting more interaction and creating more biodiversity.
Because of their fragile nature, cacao trees are especially susceptible to disease. Most common are fungi that rot the pods, such as witches broom, black pod and frosty pod rot. The pods are also vulnerable to pests like the cocoa pod borer, a moth larvae that infiltrates the pods.
Simple eco-friendly bio-control measures are being used to save the crop and coax the best cacao from the trees.
“Machete technology” involves walking the orchards each week with a knife, harvesting ripe pods and, to stop disease from spreading, cutting off sickly pods. Weeding, thinning the canopy and controlling its height, and pruning are also effective.
Farms may enforce breaks in pod production and bury pod husks to prevent larvae hatchings or remove the soil tunnels that ants build on the trees' trunks, because both soil and ants carry the fungi.
Through other bio-control measures, farmers can introduce a beneficial organism to prevent or reverse disease naturally. In one example, researchers are studying a fungus that could combat monilia pod rot, which destroyed much of Costa Rica's cocoa trees in the 1980s.
Grafting trees, creating hybrids or planting varieties with higher resistance to pests and diseases can produce healthier trees and higher-quality cacao while lowering a farmer’s need for pesticides. See how the industry and its partners are helping farmers grow cacao safely and sustainably.