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Coffee and cacao in the Pan Amazon

Both coffee and cacao are small trees adapted to the conditions of the forest understory. Coffee cherries (drupes, in botanical terminology) are harvested once a year by hand when ripe. Credit: © bychla /

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023 and 2024.

Coffee and cacao have much in common. Both are descended from understory trees adapted to the low-light conditions of the forest floor. Each have multiple cultivated varieties that differ with respect to quality, as defined by the aromas and other phytochemicals that act as flavor enhancers and stimulants. Both are perennial cash crops that require unskilled labor at harvest and a certain amount of technical proficiency for post-harvest processing. The basic commodity of commerce is a seed, referred to as a bean, while the fruits are subject to fermentation to facilitate the collection of beans, which are washed, dried and bagged for transport and sale.

Unlike oil palm, the post-harvest processing of coffee and cacao do not require a large capital-intensive industrial facility. This is important because it allows small farmers who reside in remote villages to process their own production and transport it to the nearest logistical center. Like all artisanal systems, there are cultivation practices and processing procedures that influence the quality of the product. A combination of these factors leads to the production of elite coffees and fine cacaos, which have niche markets that impact the prices paid to farmers.

Both cacao and coffee have been implicated in the loss of natural forest habitat, most of which is associated with smallholder production systems. The proximate cause of this deforestation is a desire to expand production or a need to replace existing plantations that have become infested with pests, or have lost vigor due to age. These are crops common to the agricultural frontier, where farmers’ modus operandi is to occupy and clear forest to establish new plantings.

Several of the most popular varieties of both coffee and cacao are adapted to full sunlight; in these cases, the plot is completely deforested prior to planting. Some varieties of both crops grow better under shade, which motivates landholders to expand production into forest habitat to take advantage of the canopy trees. Although this is less damaging than clearing the forest of all its biomass, it is still a form of cryptic deforestation and contributes to the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services. As trees mature and production declines, farmers tend to remove shade trees in order to maintain yields over the short term; eventually, the land is converted into some other land use, typically pasture for cattle and dairy.

Cacao pods (fleshy capsules) are unusual because they are born on the stems rather than on the branches and mature gradually over several months. Image by Maria Nelasova /

Cacao is a labor-intensive crop that requires an artisanal, post-harvest fermentation process that makes it a good option for small farmers. Both coffee and cacao are often promoted as alternatives to the cultivation of illicit coca, in part because they fetch a decent price, but also because their smallholder production system is similar to coca leaf. Numerous initiatives have sought to promote coffee and cacao as development options on conflictive landscapes, and most of these initiatives have also sought to avoid new deforestation by offering technical assistance. Unfortunately, these efforts have not been particularly successful, either in eradicating illicit coca or in avoiding deforestation.

The cultivation of cacao and coffee has expanded on some, but not all, of their traditional landscapes in the Amazon; in some instances, production has declined. Changes in crop area occur largely in response to market demand that is determined by conditions in other parts of the world, either by weather events or structural challenges that are motivating commodity traders to diversify their supply chains.

In the case of declining coffee production in Ecuador, overseas competition has caused producers to abandon a long-established cultivation system in favor of other crops. The increase in supplies from South America has been accompanied by renewed attempts to delink the expansion of coffee and cacao from new deforestation; these initiatives are taking advantage of new subsidies linked to climate-change programmes or improved pricing mechanisms linked to certification systems that support farmers who embrace the concepts of sustainability.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 3 here:

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