Chocolate: Past, Present and Future of Cacao


Chocolate: Past, Present and Future of CACAO

The steady decline of cacao plantations throughout the world has led to the revival of small, family owned and operated groves and co-ops. As the economic base of the large plantation system crumbles, farmers band together to create co-ops to better market their valuable crop. Cacao has always been a crop that never did adapt well to large-scale production, even in the time of the Mayas. In order to understand the situation, we need to study the history of cacao cultivation.

The Swedish botanist, Linnaeus tagged the cacao tree with a combination of the Greek botanical "theobroma" ("theo," god; "broma," food -- or "food of the gods") and "cacao" a Europeanized spelling of the Nahua, "kakawa," which referred to the seeds of the tree. Through mispronunciation, this eventually became known as "cocoa."

A member of the Sterculiaceae family, Theobroma consists of more than 20 species and numerous sub-species commonly classed either as criollo (native) or forastero (foreign). A third class is "Trinitario," a name given to a heterogeneous assemblage of hybrids from Trinidad and Venezuela. Two of the species, T. cacao and T. bicolor, are native to Mexico, Central America, and the northern part of South America with a secondary speciation on the Pacific Coast slopes of the Andes. Since they are the source of chocolate and cocoa, they have become collectively known as "chocolate trees." A third species, T. grandiflorum, grows in the Amazon and is used by the natives as a source for "refrescos" and "dulces."

T. cacao is a small, straight-growing evergreen with oval, petiolate leaves and a thick trunk. It does not grow well beyond 2,500 feet above sea level. This tree can grow to 30 feet or more but is normally kept pruned between 15 and 20 feet when under cultivation. At five years the tree will begin to bloom and bear fruit. It reaches its beating maturity between the ages of 12 and 50 years but can live up to 100 years. Small, white, pentamerous, hermaphrodite flowers bloom in clusters. These are attached directly to the older wood on the trunk or branches of the tree. After flowering, the tree produces football-shaped drupes 7-10 inches long and about four inches in diameter. The drupe is more commonly referred to as a pod. Healthy trees can produce dozens of pods annually. The pods change color from green to red to purplish-yellow as they ripen.

The pod is ribbed and fibrous outside, fleshy and acidic inside. The pods are harvested by hand with a special machete so as not to harm the cushion on which the pods are produced. Future blooms and pods are produced on this same cushion. Inside the pod are five rows of one-inch-long lenticular seeds. Each pod contains 20-50 seeds. Each seed is covered by a purplish-yellow shell. The shell covers white to pinkish-brown kernels or nibs. These kernels, when processed, become various forms of chocolate, cocoa, and cocoa butter so much in demand around the world. The best quality chocolate comes from the criollo sub-species derived from T. cacao.

Theobroma bicolor is a hardier, disease resistant species. Known throughout Mesoamerica by its Nahua name, Pataxte, T. bicolor is also known as Mountain Cacao in Guatemala. Here it grows in altitudes to 4,000 feet. Even though it is a heavy producer, the cacao quality is inferior to that of T. cacao. T. bicolor sub-species are commonly referred to as "forastero" when marketed. Evidence of cacao use dates back to 1100 B.C. Archaeologists have discovered discarded cacao rinds in trash dumps at the Cuello site in northern Belize.

Prior to the Spanish conquest, Mayan and Aztec priests and royalty drank copious amounts of a drink made from the fermented and crushed cacao seeds. This drink was called xocoatl or "bitter water" in Nahua. Later in Europe xocoatl became "chocolate." Xocoatl was used for ceremonies and religious observances. Priests used it as a part of their prayer offerings. Kings drank it for breakfast. Marriage vows were sealed by drinking xocoatl. It was a major part of every feast. During the 15th century, Nezahualcoyotl's court in Texcoco is recorded as consuming "four xipuipillis" or 32,000 beans each day.

Even though the cacao bean was central to Mesoamerican life, only the very wealthy and powerful could afford to use it. In the market place, the beans were accepted as standard currency. On market day, three beans would purchase a turkey egg, 100 beans a slave or a dugout canoe, 65-300 beans a cotton mantle. Since the king and his appointees controlled the production and distribution of the beans from the groves, they also controlled inflation. Counterfeiting of the bean by scooping out the pulp and replacing it with wax or dirt was punishable by death. The value of the bean made counterfeiting worth the risk. Cacao beans continued to be used as standard currency until 1887 in Mexico.

The socio-political basis of both the Mayan and Aztec empires was dependent on acquiring vast tracts of land suitable for cacao cultivation, enough slaves to work the cacao groves, and roads or waterways by which to transport the harvested cacao. Tribute in the form of cacao beans, slaves, and other materials was demanded from all conquered people. Because of this, the empire was constantly at war and continually expanding. The empire began to outgrow the means by which it had previously supported itself -- the milpa.

The milpa was an important farming concept developed in Mesoamerica. Generally associated with a maize field, a milpa was in reality a small, individually owned garden or farm growing several sustainable crops. The logic of the milpa was based on the observance of the symbiotic relationship between certain plants. For instance, it was common practice to plant corn, beans, and squash together in order to better utilize space and nutrients. Milpa could also refer to any small farm that not only raised subsistence crops but also had a small orchard or cacao field surrounding the main field.

Milpas required fewer laborers. With the smaller groves, the cacaotero, or person in charge of caring for the cacao, could be more vigilant concerning the health and age of the trees. However, as the population grew, so did the amount of land and the labor needed for the raising of cacao and other crops. Since the cacao crop was harvested year round, slave labor became imperative in the operation of the larger groves.

Most milpas were prepared by the slash-and-bum method. The nutrients provided by this method were high in potash but benefits from this style of farming were short term. The quick release of nutrients often exceeded the ability of most plants to assimilate them before the nutrients were lost through leeching and runoff. With the overstory eliminated, the leaf litter was also eliminated. This green manure provided a rich mulch that maintained an even soil temperature, controlled weeds and insects, and prevented fungus. Crops had to be rotated to get the maximum benefit from the soil. New fields were cleared every 4-6 years while older fields were allowed to lie fallow for 10-15 years. This method was practical when populations were small but became impractical as the population grew.

To maximize the use of the fields in regions like Chiapas, Soconusco, and Tabasco where cacao was of prime importance, the drought-sensitive cacao trees were usually planted along a canal or ditch. In swampy regions, land was reclaimed by digging canals and piling the dirt from the canals into raised beds. The muck and excess waterplants pulled from the canals provided added nutrients and mulch for the trees. In addition, the canals provided a waterway for travel to market as well as an extensive irrigation system and source of water for the drier regions. Fish and shellfish gleaned from the canals were an added dietary benefit.

The cacao was not only drought sensitive but was also wind sensitive and nitrogen dependent. Growing naturally as a middlestory tree in the rainforests of Mesoamerica, the cacao was sheltered from the wind and sun. The frequent thunderstorms provided additional nitrogen, it was commonly found growing in close proximity to the Madre de cacao (Gliricidia sepium). Studies have shown that Madre de cacao not only provided protection but also nitrogen. As a member of the Leguminaceae family, Madre de cacao's leaves were high in nitrogen and its root nodules contained nitrogen-fixing bacteria. With the cacao's root system close to the surface, the abundant leaf matter provided by Madre de cacao provided a steady source of nitrogen as well as trace amounts of coumarin. Coumarin acts as a mouse poison and cacao beans were a favorite food of mice. Interplanting the two trees in the milpa provided an ideal symbiotic relationship.

The arrival of the Spanish conquistadors brought many changes. One of these was the encomienda system. Under the encomienda system, Spanish governors were entrusted with the well-being and Christianization of the Indians of specific regions in return for the right to demand goods and services from these Indians. The regional tribute paid to Spain more than doubled from that which had been paid to the Aztec kings. In Soconusco, according to the Mendoza Codex, the Mayans paid 200 cargas (1 carga or bundle = 67 lbs. of cacao beans) annually to the Aztec ruler prior to colonization. Under colonial rule, the amount paid reached 548 cargas. Chocolate became as much a favorite of the European courts as it had been a favorite of the Aztec courts. By the late 16th century, Mexico City was exporting up to 6,000 cargas each year to Spain. Cacao was big business and attracted the attention of other countries such as Portugal, England, and the Netherlands.

Cacao beans and plants were pirated and planted in Trinidad and Brazil. Eventually plantations were established in the Gulf of Guinea, off the West coast of Africa, mainland Africa, and the Far East. All of these countries were tropical regions within 20 degrees either side of the equator. Here the cacao was provided with 80 or more inches of rain annually and a mean seasonal temperature no lower than 65 degrees F. nor above 95 degrees F.

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In Africa, growers discovered the yield increased with the elimination of the overstory. What had not been taken into consideration was that the overstory prevented lateriatic soils from losing the rich organic content provided by these trees. They also protected the shallow root system of the cacao from the sun and kept the fragile soil from baking hard. Strains that had proven disease resistant in Mesoamerica were exposed to new disease and fungus problems.

Some overstory trees harbored beneficial insects such as the midges of the family Ceratopogonidae, as well as honey bees, red ants, and thrips. These insects were necessary to the pollination of the cacao and to the amount of seed each pod would produce. On the other hand, some of the trees were found to harbor harmful insects that brought deadly diseases to the groves. In 1940 into 1950 and again in 1970 into early 1980, Swollen Shoot disease decimated the cacao groves of Ghana and the Ivory Coast. Swollen Shoot is a disease that occurs naturally in the native forests of Southern Africa. Native trees had built a resistance to the disease over the centuries but the cacao had no resistance. Within a few short years entire plantations were destroyed. This was a major disaster to Ghana and the Ivory Coast, whose economy had become dependent on this cash crop.

When cacao became a major cash crop in Ghana, it changed the traditional agricultural standards of the country. As a cash crop, it was grown exclusively, to the detriment of subsistence crops. Prime fields that were once used to grow a number of subsistence crops were used solely for the growing of cacao. The subsistence crops were relegated to regions with poorer soil or were purchased from other areas not involved in the growing of cash crops. Women and children had been responsible for the tending and harvesting of the subsistence crops. Cacao as a "cash" crop became a "man's" crop. This gave the man less time for hunting. Transportation time to and from the groves led to less spare time for the making and selling of traditional crafts. Cash crops also brought about environmental problems. They replaced the natural rainforest area, quickly depleted the soil, and caused other changes in the rainforest dynamics.

On the positive side, the outside marketing of cacao in Ghana was government controlled with a fixed price paid to the farmers. The extra money earned by cacao sales was used for civic projects such as roads and schools. It also aided in achieving Ghana's independence from Great Britain.

With the onset of the Swollen Shoot disease, the economy and environment of Ghana and the Ivory. Coast were greatly affected. Sprays had no effect. Only the irradiation of all trees that harbored the disease and the planting of newer, more resistant strains of cacao eventually brought the problem under control. By that time, most of the large cacao farms and plantations were gone. Farmers were hesitant to take the risk of re-planting new strains of cacao in older infected fields. Therefore, new fields were cleared in existing rainforest areas. This perpetuated the previously mentioned environmental problems caused by the destruction of the fragile forest.

By the beginning of the 20th century, two-thirds of the world's cacao was being shipped to the United Kingdom and the United States. At the onset of World War II, both of these consumers had stockpiled a year's supply of cacao beans. Germany was also a large consumer of cacao. The Germans, however, were cut off from their supply since all the cacao-producing regions were under the control of the allies. For that first year of the war, the cacao market suffered a major setback due to the lack of sales. The war also caused further shipping and marketing difficulties. The lack of consumer goods in the producing countries encouraged neglect of the groves since there was nothing for which to trade. The unavailability of low-cost fertilizers and insecticides led to the loss of many trees. Many plantations did not reforest their land as trees became unproductive or diseased. Plantation owners and farmers looking for a new source of income planted the fields with sugar cane and coffee. Petroleum fields utilized the labor that was no longer used in the cacao groves.

After the war, the demand for quality chocolate shifted in the U.S. from "Fancy" to "Medium" grade. A "Medium" grade standard required a larger quantity of cocoa butter of which forastero beans were the best source. More forastero varieties were being planted and harvested while the criollo groves were abandoned or replanted with forastero or trinitario stock. Although the demand for cacao was still high, the sales of the poorer grade brought down the profit margin. This continuing downward spiral was forcing more of the larger operations out of business.

With the market still intact, family and individual growers began replanting the groves and establishing co-ops. The co-ops were responsible for the processing and marketing of the cacao. These co-ops allowed the smaller operations to compete in the world market.

Biotechnology began to play a major role in the cacao groves. Overstory plantings were studied. Plant relationships and the environment were carefully considered. Public demands for less use of synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, and insecticides brought about a search for new disease-resistant strains of cacao and safer methods for controlling disease in the groves.

Currently, 80 percent of the beans are still being exported from Africa to supply 95 percent of the world demand. Entering today's market is a newly founded operation on Oahu, Hawaii. The Hawaiian Vintage Chocolate Co. has crossbred the criollo variety to produce a unique Hawaiian variety.

The Kona and Keaau trees are genetically engineered to produce in two years and are grown in full sun. They are heavy bearers producing a nutty-flavored bean with less acidity and bitterness than other criollo varieties.

Even though the American diet has changed, the U.S. is still the top importer of cacao, not only for confections, but also for pharmaceutical uses. Cacao has been used for centuries as a medicinal. Recent studies show cacao to be high in theobromine, a purine alkaloid which has both a calming effect on the brain and an energizing effect on the nervous system. Both theobromine and caffeine are found in chocolate and both act as a diuretic. It has also been found to stimulate the appetite and reduce fatigue. Studies are being conducted to better understand the effect that phenylethylamine, a component of cacao, has on the brain. Cocoa butter has been used for centuries as a burn ointment, as a vaginal or rectal suppository, a beauty cream, and as an emollient.

The cacao market remains strong. Since the beginning of this century, there has been another major adjustment in the manner in which cacao has been cultivated. Despite the social and political upheavals throughout the centuries, the cultivation of cacao remains ethnoagriculturally centered around the philosophy of the Mesoamerican milpa.


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By Leanna K. Potts

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