Sustainable Cacao: Good for the Economy, Great for the Forest

It helps restore cut-down forests, create jobs and income for rural communities, and re-establish a historic business in Venezuela

Twenty degrees north and twenty south of the Equator, the cocoa belt is experiencing the effects of climate change, as the whole planet. At the current speed of the disruptions, it’s very likely that the area where cacao is being grown today will be narrower in the next four decades. But the fruit that gives us chocolate can also become extinct. Mexico and Nicaragua, for instance, will lose their crops. Venezuela could also be another country to lose theirs.

It would be a disgrace, not only for chocolate lovers and the economy around it, but also because cocoa, according to agronomist Francisco Betancourt, “is a conservationist crop. As we plant cocoa, we are making forests and sustainable plantations.”

The good news is that in Venezuela, growing cocoa in a sustainable manner isn’t a plan for the future, but a reality that is gaining ground today. Be it because we have to make the most out of the agriculture materials and equipment, because of their scarcity and high cost, or because of the low amount of land growing cocoa and we have to squeeze all we can out of it, the fact is that we still seed and plant with minimal environmental impact.

Businessman Douglas Dager says that unlike other cocoa-producing countries in the region, Venezuelan lands aren’t pruned with tractors, nor are the plants injected with artificial nutrients, nor are chemical insecticides used to turn them into small cocoa factories. “We try for the living thing inside the plant to develop as naturally as possible, always understanding that the crop made by human beings is an aggravation to the natural rhythm of the environment,” he says. 

Restoring a Mountain Forest

Environmentalist Oscar Pietri thought about reforesting with this fruit when he found ancestral cocoa that was believed to be extinct. He believes that cocoa can be a productive and cultural crop in the mountains of Yaracuy. Pietri says: “I came here about thirty years ago, and we started recovering the trees’ genetics around twenty years ago, through seed reproduction of the older trees in Guáquira. Now, I’m a very small farmer, of around twelve thousand trees. I seed and plant cocoa trees in the mountains, with conservationist purposes, to regain the vegetative covering and the environmental balance. For us, this space is for conservation, cocoa is a sub-product of reforestation.”

In spite of Yaracuy being a rainy state and that over 40 percent of its territory is a national park, in 2015, according to regional authorities, rivers registered a decline of between 70 and 100 percent.

What Pietri had warned would happen twenty years ago was becoming a reality, when he was presenting yaracuyano cocoa to the region’s authorities: “The value of Guáquira wasn’t being acknowledged. They were destroying the water springs, the biomass, the habitat of native species, the possibility of finding medicine and food which we still don’t know today, for planting some cereal and having a few cows. Maybe people don’t think it’s important, but to me, deforesting virgin forests is always a bad idea.”

Three hundred thousand hectares of forest in Yaracuy were lost, even if the Law of Land and Agricultural Development of 2001 says that natural resources are to be preserved during agricultural and cattle production. But later, the authorities started to pay attention to Pietri. In recent years, the government banned cutting down trees, deforestation, and extensive farming, especially in protected areas. High mountain farming, one of the biggest problems, has been banned since 2015. 

“It’s illegal to cut down on the hills in Guáquira now and the punishment for deforestation is to reforest,” Pietri says. “So, I promote disseminating trees of Guáquira or Marroquina cocoa varieties and understanding the symbiosis in a mega-diverse area: birds, monkeys, rodents, and endemic species all live in the cocoa farm… Maybe this is why the Guáquira model is expanding to protected and protective surrounding areas, and we don’t sell cocoa to the industry, but to chocolatiers who appreciate our cocoa.”

And why not reforest the same species that were cut down? Because it’s difficult to convince farmers to plant trees that don’t bear fruit. So, as Pietri points out, a productive reforestation is better than nothing. In the end, in practical terms, when the crops are taken care of, the forest coverage is recovered.

Cocoa also means conservation and ecological tourism that, at least in Pietri’s property, are still profitable economic activities. He’s not as interested in how much is marketed, but how to grow cocoa so good that it’s top of the line and not just give it away, and to sustain the labor of thirty workers in the land. Profit is just a means for keeping a conservation effort with a social impact.

Canoabo Is the Model

There’s no cocoa farmer or chocolatier in Venezuela who won’t mention what’s going on in Canoabo, in Carabobo, east of Yaracuy. Between 2018 and 2019, the Cacao Resiliente project by environmental NGO Fundación Tierra Viva was developed, after winning the IADB Invest InterAmerican Initiative for Investment Promotion, and put in place ecological and profitable agricultural practices for cocoa crops to mitigate the effects of climate change.

The project focused on the work by and with cocoa farmers, who organized in a civil association and were trained in technical and marketing skills, resolved to modernize the crops system in the valley. In 2020, the association set up a sustainability project that won a grant from the United Nations Development Program, UNDP.

Francisco Hernández, cocoa farmer and one of the directors of the association, says that this new project helped to further develop local agriculture with manufacturing and biofertilizers: “We were able to set up the bio-inputs and we’re making one solid and three liquid biofertilizers, not only for cocoas, but for any other market, even for homes with small vegetable gardens and any other farmer in the country.”

In Canoabo, plagues and diseases among the crops are already being controlled with natural products, which are way less costly than conventional agrochemicals and synthetic fertilizers, and won’t pollute the grounds and the underground water.

The sustainable practice also means that, once the harvest is over, farmers are burning less and reforesting more, while producing more and sharing knowledge with the technical agricultural school and the university located in the valley. 

Canoabo farmers are looking for a way of sharing with the government what they have learned to improve production and marketing in the rest of the country. Morales says: “Hopefully they’ll see the potential with everything we’re doing. Canoabo has been growing in planted hectares and with processing new chocolate brands have emerged here, in Carabobo… Our cocoa is gaining recognition.”

The Good, Stubborn Ones

Entrepreneur Douglas Dager has his own version of the Svalbard bank: one germplasm bank in Aragua and another one in Mérida that, while modest, are preserving the genetics of some local cocoas in danger of extinction or that aren’t planted in large quantities. Dager gathers those very few plants across the country to keep them alive and reproduce them.

“We have to preserve these native cocoas, because these banks, in Venezuela, are already becoming extinct out of despair and if a flood happens here, all those trees will be taken, or if climate change continues like it is, that’s the end of the road for genetics. The more places there are for safekeeping, the more we could preserve them,” says Dager. 

A cocoa farmer and researcher from Paria, in eastern Venezuela, Calixto López collecting with Fundación Proyecto Paria all the cocoas he could in the peninsula between 2003 and 2013: “I grafted them on my farm, one by one. They are numbered to know how many there are, and they’re all neat and tidy.”

According to chocolatier Jesús Méndez “Churri”, that López has been collecting cocoas for almost two decades means that he “turned his farm into a study center. He managed to identify native local cocoas, now known as Agua Fría 1, that he reproduced in his farm and in other places in the peninsula. It’s a study limited by financial conditions, but he’s a very interesting researcher, because he is absolutely committed to this and his process is of permanent observation.”

Other initiatives are still settling down. As chocolatier María Fernanda Di Giacobbe puts it, a lot of people are focused “on maintaining and proving that we have the world’s best cocoa.” 

The Asociación de Cacao y Afines from Bolívar insists on the safety of the farmers and in preserving the virgin lands of Guayana. The Red de Cacao Barinés promotes this crop in Barinas despite the changes in the patterns of the rain and dry seasons. In Margarita Island, the Vásquez family produces in the mountain range. The Fundación Nuestra Tierra also reminds us of the reason for so much effort: without cocoa, there’s no chocolate… No economic, education, social, or cultural development in Venezuela.

Read part I of the series: The Miracle of Producing the World’s Best Cocoa

And part II: What Makes Venezuelan Cacao So Good