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High quality cacao in Amazonia

Ecuador is renowned for its fine cacao, most of which is harvested from the variety known as Nacional . Credit: © hakk78 /

  • 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.

Cacao (Theobroma cacao) is native to the Amazon rainforest and has been cultivated and consumed throughout the Americas since before Columbus. Cacao can be broadly segregated into to contrasting types based on quality: bulk cacao is used for most candy and food products, and fine cacao is preferred for speciality chocolates. There are dozens of varieties, strains and hybrids, but these two major types have dominated production and trade for centuries.

The supply of bulk cacao was largely diverted from Latin America to West Africa and Southeast Asia during the colonial period of the late nineteenth century. Fine cacao represents only about 5% of global cacao consumption, but almost all of that originates in Latin America where the genetic diversity of the wild species has been used to improve the concentration of aromatic compounds in the cacao bean. A combination of events has stimulated a revitalisation of cacao production in South America, and the production of both bulk and fine cocoa has been increasing at about 10% annually over the last decade.

The traditional method for establishing a plantation is to clear the understory of a natural forest and plant cacao seedlings that were germinated in a nursery or directly under an intact canopy. It takes about four years for young trees to flower and fruit, after which light management is important for maximizing production and quality: too much light and plants will suffer stress; too little and yields decline. An individual tree can live decades, but most commercial plantings are programmed to last about 20 years due to declining yields.

One of the practices used to improve or prolong productivity is to open the canopy to increase light and stimulate photosynthesis, which will increase yields over the short term. Eventually, productivity will decline, however, and groves are converted to pasture or allowed to lapse into a forest fallow. Cacao farming as traditionally practiced is a form of slow-motion deforestation.

Traditional cacao farming has contributed to the devastation of the tropical forests of West Africa, which provided about 60% of global demand throughout the twentieth century. As forest habitat has become increasingly scarce in West Africa, cacao growers have adopted full-sun production systems to maintain yields. Many analysts predict that these practices will lead to a permanent decline in West African cacao production. Not surprisingly, global commodity traders and food companies have been seeking alternative sources of cacao, and that is one reason production in the Amazon has been on the increase.

Cacao cultivation has been increasing in all jurisdictions; the lower production in Ecuador reflects Amazonian growers’ predilection for low-yielding but high quality varieties. Variation in international commodity markets impacts annual revenues. The graphic excludes coastal producers in Ecuador (~90% of national production) and Bahia, Brazil (~75% of national production). Data sources: FAOSTAT and IBGE/SIDRA.

Brazil produced more than 275,000 tonnes of cacao in 2014, mainly from Bahía (58%) and Pará (42%), particularly in the municipalities located on the north bank of the Amazon River (Human Modified Landscape or HML # 1) and the Transamazônica highway (HML #10), where yields are almost double than those of traditional cacao growers in Bahía. The popularity of cacao in smallholder landscapes is expected to grow over the short-term, and the Associação Nacional das Indústrias Processadoras de Cacau (AIPC) has pledged to double production over the next 10 years.

Ecuador produced approximately 160,00 tonnes in 2016 with about 85% cultivated in the provinces of the coastal Pacific and the remainder originating in the Amazon (HML #49 and HML #50). Most of Colombia’s production occurs in non-Amazonian watersheds, but its Amazonian provinces have the required climatic and edaphic characteristics. Caquetá has about 400 growers with about 1000 hectares (HML #52), which is less than 2% of national production; efforts to increase production are linked to efforts to displace illicit coca. Venezuela produces cacao but not in the Amazon, while Bolivia’s limited production is largely targeted at domestic consumption, except for an association of growers in the Yungas of La Paz (HML #33)

Ecuador has a special market niche because its growers supply about 70% of the fine cocoa commercialized in global markets. The source is a local variety known as Nacional, which has been cultivated on Ecuadorian farms for decades. It was recently christened Sabor Arriba by the Ecuadorian association of cacao exporters. Ecuador’s position as a provider of fine cacao is being challenged, or at least modified, by the increasing popularity of a hybrid cacao variety known as CCN-51, which has gained market share because of its robust growth and high yields.

It has lost some market share, however, to CCN-51, a hybrid developed by a plant breeder in the 1990s, which is inferior in quality but has better yield. Image by © William Borney /

There is concern among chocolate connoisseurs and export companies that CCN-51 may displace Nacional and compromise Ecuador’s dominance of the specialty cacao market. It is preferred by farmers because Nacional trees yield only about 300–400 kg/ha compared to 700–1,100 kg/ha for CCN-51, which can yield three tonnes per hectare when cultivated in experimental stations under ideal conditions.

The increased productivity of CCN-51 is the result of its genetic makeup, which controls the size and number of the fruits per tree and seeds per pod. It can be cultivated in full sun, has a lower rate of disease infestation, and responds better to agrochemicals. These attributes cause concern among environmental advocates who criticize its genetic narrowness as a clone and cite its potential to become another monoculture production system.

Like all commodities, price varies enormously but, on a per hectare basis, cacao producers’ revenues will vary from as low as $US 500 to as much as $3,000. Smallholders in Amazonian Ecuador typically cultivate only between one and five hectares of cacao, while commercial producers on the Pacific Coast might have as much as fifty hectares. Certified production of fine cacao delivers a price premium to the farmer of about 20%, but this is not sufficient to offset the lower yields of Nacional trees.

Currently, CCN-51 contributes about 36% to Ecuadorian national production compared to 37% from Nacional. Amazonian producers largely produce a third type, known as Cururay, which is similar to Nacional in both yield and cacao characteristics. Production in Amazonian Ecuador is static, but efforts to expand production are underway as part of initiatives to promote alternatives to deforestation-based agriculture.

In Peru, a similar phenomenon is occurring with respect to CCN-51, which is making inroads among both established and new producers. The area under cultivation has approximately doubled between 2005 and 2015, with particularly strong growth on landscapes that are the focus of ‘alternative development’ programmes linked to the war on drugs. Apparently, these programmes have been proponents of the cultivation of CCN-51 due to its superior yield and the need to compete with coca cultivation.

In 2015, more than 53% of all cacao groves were planted in CCN-51 with only about 44% dedicated to fine cacao, which apparently includes a mixture of introduced criollo cultivars and native varieties derived from Amazonian wild populations.

Production has grown annually by about 8%, reaching more than 85,000 tonnes in 2016 produced on about 110,00 hectares. The major production area is San Martin (HML #42 and HML #43) with 31 tonnes, which represents 44% of total national volume; these tend to be new producers, and they are overwhelmingly adopting CCN-51. Other regions include landscapes near Pucallpa (HML #41), Huanuco and Junín (HML #40) and La Convención (HML #35).

Criollo and native varieties predominate on these landscapes, but CCN-51 contributes between twenty and 35% of the harvest. Prior to 2000, most cacao production was dedicated to meeting domestic demand; subsequent growth can be attributed to exports, which accounted for more than two-thirds of total production in 2016 with a value of approximately $US 200 million. These proceeds are distributed among 26 growers’ associations representing approximately 30,000 families, with mean gross revenues of between $1,000 and $1,500 per hectare, depending upon price.

The upper Amazon is a center of diversity for the genus Theobroma. This genetic diversity is the source of the region’s fine cacao, which is highly prized by chocolatiers. Source: Thomas et al. (2012)

An experiment in corporate cacao production may be underway courtesy of a controversial development located near Tamshiyacu, a village located about forty kilometers upriver from Iquitos, the capital city of Loreto Department in Amazonian Peru. This industrial-scale plantation was established by an entity knows as United Plantations, a subsidiary of the Grupo Melka, the same corporation that attempted to establish large-scale oil palm plantations in Ucayali Department.

The more than 2,400 hectares of primary forest that were cleared were intended, apparently, to establish what would be the first industrial-scale cacao plantation in the world. Fortunately, the legality of this deforestation has been challenged in court and activities have been paralyzed. The Grupo Melka has sold its assets and abandoned its investments in Peru.

Despite the predominance of CCN-51, the association of Peruvian cacao exporters is seeking to improve its market position by emphasizing the quality of its fine cacao offerings. The motivation is driven in part by a commercial logic to provide a niche product with a price premium, but it is also influenced by a long-held desire to monetize the value of a biodiversity asset of the Amazonian biome. The Western Amazonian is a center of genetic diversity of cacao and the evolutionary origin of the genus.

Ecuador and Peru hope to capitalize on the genetic diversity of their wild populations to develop new cultivars that combine both the improved aroma characteristics of fine cacao and the disease resistance and superior yield attributes that make CCN-51 popular with growers.

“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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