Cacao crops waning

Player utilities

Listen to the story.

Audio Transcript:

Cacao plantations have been a mainstay for farmers in the Mexican state of Chiapas. But farmers have started to abandon these crops for the more lucrative sugar cane and oil palm plants. Fearful of losing the traditional cacao, conservationists are trying creative ways to sustain those crops. Murray Carpenter reports.

MARCO WERMAN: Mexican farmers have grown cacao for centuries. It's a source of chocolate, but you chocolate lovers beware, there's a problem. Some farmers south of the border have been clearing their cacao farms to plant other crops that are bringing in higher prices. Wait though, you chocolate lovers might be part of the solution. You might soon have the option of buying chocolate that has been officially certified as environmentally sustainable. Murray Carpenter reports.

MURRAY CARPENTER: The land outside of Tapachula, in the Mexican state of Chiapas is pancake flat and largely covered in dense forests full of wildlife. But it's not all wild jungle. Some of it is actually intensively managed. Rubiel Velasquez works for a cooperative that sells organic products. He says the forest on the left side of the road here is a cacao plantation. Velasquez says the plantation has all of its native trees, including cedar, oak and other species. Cacao here is typically grown in wooded farms like this one with crops at multiple levels, from fruit trees towering high above down to the cacao growing in the shade. It's an ancient form of agriculture that also provides wildlife habitat and other environmental benefits. But it's not faring so well in the modern economy. Velasquez points to the other side of the road where a former cacao plantation is now completely denuded. Its one of many plantations here that has been cleared for more profitable sugarcane or oil palm. Velasquez worries that traditional cacao farms could soon disappear altogether. And the trend is drawing the interest of conservationists.

EDWARD MILLARD: As a conservation organization, we sometimes say to ourselves, heck, how did we get involved in that? We didn't start life thinking about working in cacao.

CARPENTER: Edward Millard oversees sustainable landscapes for the Rainforest Alliance. It turns out the cacao is grown on millions of acres of land worldwide. Land that Millard says is important for biodiversity. Along with conversion to other crops, he says there has also been a move in recent years to more intensive cacao production, at the expense of the environment. The problem is that it's easier for farmers to manage for one crop at a time. So the Rainforest Alliance is trying to help identify and get value out of the other benefits of traditional methods of cacao farming.

MILLARD: If you can produce a major cash crop like cacao in an understory with a mix of other crops, and all of them together giving you a system to keep your climate regulated, your soils healthy, to provide compost material, etc., that's a pretty viable system.

CARPENTER: A few years ago Millard's group began certifying chocolate that is sustainably grown, much as they've also done with coffee. The goal is to get cacao farmers a financial premium for managing their lands well.

MILLARD: And little by little this will build the same sort of awareness and consumer response in the chocolate industry, I think, as we've seen in coffee and so we can expect certified chocolate also to start claiming more and more of the consumer's purchasing power.

CARPENTER: The state of Chiapas has also been working with cacao farmers to help them improve their growing techniques and become more economically and environmentally sustainable. Carlos Victoria, who oversees cacao for the state, says the decline in cacao in Chiapas has stopped, in part because prices are way up. Victoria says cacao alone can now bring about $1,600.00 hectare. He says if you add the value of other fruits growing in the canopy of traditional cacao farms, farmers can earn a good deal more. Victorio says that makes cacao farms in Chiapas competitive with oil palm and sugarcane. That means there's much less pressure to chop down cacao forests. In fact, on at least one plot of land in Chiapas, the trend is being reversed. Next to a stand of cacao seedlings, a farm worker hacks at tree prunings with a machete. This land was once a traditional cacao plantation, but it was cleared decades ago. Now Rubiel Velasquez and his partners at the organic cooperative are hoping to turn back the clock. Velasquez shows off a newly planted cacao grove. He says this former cow pasture is again a young cacao plantation with five or six other species of fruit all growing together in a single ecosystem. Velasquez is hoping to convince his neighbors that this sort of reforestation is the trend of the future for Chiapas cacao, just as it is a legacy of the past. For The World, I'm Murray Carpenter, Chiapas Mexico.