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Conservation Effects and History of Cacao in the Tropics


Although early on it received little attention and was disliked from its bitter taste, cacao became a huge market, especially when it met sugar and became a $93 billion a year global industry. Cacao trees originated in the Amazon but they were quickly exported to other countries. Not many people know of the different strains of cacao and how it can have a variety of flavors influenced by the region where it’s grown. Cacao thrive in shaded regions and tropical climates, making the heavily forested Amazon a prime location for their growth.  

With such a high demand for the plant it has greatly impacted the environment from its agricultural effect. The expansion of cacao production into forested areas has become a conservation issue in tropical areas. Studies have looked at how a newly cleared forested area produces 15% to 25% higher cacao yields than a replanted area (Rice and Greenberg 2000). Not to mention, this product is notorious for its wavelike variations in global prices. Because of predictably changing ecological and social conditions, regional cacao production is often unstable, moving to agricultural frontiers and areas of primary tropical forest. There is a pattern of cacao instability and the search for new land. First, the continued clearing of agricultural frontiers is a threat to biodiversity conservation. Second, concentration of activity at particular frontier regions makes the global cacao crop vulnerable to the invasion of new diseases or pests. And third, there are few forest frontier regions left in the world (Rice and Greenberg 2000).

As mentioned, there have been issues with cacao involving diseases which have caused a number of problems. The diseases that affect the crop can be devastating to the economy unless progress is made to diminish their effect (Bowers 2001). Organizations have been established to help ameliorate the chocolate diseases affecting the crop by using chemicals. The chemical fungicides used can potentially harm the environment and are even known to leave undesirable residue on the cacao plants making it harder to be harvested. It is important to understand the progress being made in the chocolate industry because a lot of people rely on this crop locally and globally. If something was to happen and a vast majority of cacao plants were wiped out, there would be an economical decline. Deforestation is still a huge problem in the amazon so there needs to be consideration of preserving the forest as well as preserving the plants (Bowers 2001). It may not be worth creating more damage by expanding the harvesting of the rainforest for more cacao plant production.



When Christopher Columbus traveled to the New World on his final voyage many years ago, he came across one of the most important ingredients now used in the everyday lives of people across the world. Chocolate, scientifically named Theobroma cacao, translates to mean “food of the gods”. The goodness of the plant is extracted from the seeds and was first made into a drink known as chocolatl which was then translated into the modern English language word chocolate. The Spaniards introduced the drink to the Spanish royalty, but it did not become popular for another one hundred years when sugar, cinnamon, and chile peppers made the drink more palatable (Bowers 2001). In fact, the chocolate drink was introduced even before coffee and tea in Europe.

Interestingly enough, extensive documentation has been found which shows cacao was used for medicinal purposes. In fact, uses of cacao can be traced to ancient Aztec documents. A surviving document, known as Florentine Codex, was compiled in 1590 by a Spanish priest, which has detailed accounts of cacao-based preparations and the illnesses that they were used to prevent or cure (Bennett 2003). Over the centuries, there have not been as much medicinal chocolate uses because of new drugs discoveries. Chocolate was a useful tool for many civilizations in the New World so it is amazing to see all the uses that were extracted from the plant before new discoveries were made.

In addition, cacao is known to have high genetic diversity and is well maintained in the Peruvian Amazon where it can be collected and used for distribution. There have been several expeditions during the past several decades to obtain substantial amounts of germplasm (genetic information) from the plant. Data from the study shows the spatial structure of cacao diversity highlights the need for additional collecting and conservation measures for natural and semi-natural cacao populations in the Peruvian Amazon (Zhang et al. 2006). Scientists have looked at cacao rehabilitation and found it is possible to use Peru as a significant producer of the plant due to its fertile grounds. Not to mention, approximately 16,000 ha of abandoned plantations have the potential for rehabilitation, and there are over 200,000 ha of land suitable for cacao production in the Amazonas Department alone (Zhang et al. 2006). This could help with conservation efforts for the Amazon since it will be reusing land for crop production.

A special species of the cacao tree called Pure Nacional was rediscovered in Peru in 2007 and took the chocolate world by storm. Unfortunately, the cacao tree is highly susceptible to diseases and insect pests. In 1916, the plant was hit by disease and in a few years 100% of the trees were destroyed and this particular species of cacao tree was put in the list of extinct species (DiscoverPeru). Pure Nacional is found on the eastern edge edge of the Andes Mountain in the valley of the Marañon Canyon. This canyon has low elevations of 854 meters above sea level and its highest is listed as 3000 meters (DiscoverPeru). Because of the different altitudes the microclimates create a perfect environment for the Pure Nacional and allows different varieties of the tree to grow there.



The current status of cacao is shaky. There are many factors that have recently contributed to the decline in cacao throughout the Amazon, including insect infestations, social pressures to grow other crops, economic issues, plant disease, and deforestation. Plant disease is a major factor currently in South America. In Brazil, a fungus, Crinipellis perniciosa, caused an outbreak destroying 600,000 tons of cacao over ten years. The infection spread to Peru and affected cacao there, as well as Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela. Another plant disease in Peru that affected cacao is Frost pod rot. It has been estimated to decimated cacao crop yield by 25%. The only way to control this disease is to eliminate the sources, which are dead sporulating pods. This can be done by having more frequent harvest on a strictly followed cycle (Bowers et al. 2001).


Pests are also an issue. The main pests are capsids or mirids which in their nymph and adult stages feed on the pods, trunks and twigs. These insects have been known to damage up to 75% of cacao yield. Another harmful insect is  the cocoa pod borer. This insect’s life cycle is dependent on the the cacao pods. Once the larvae emerged, they leave holes in the pods which are easily infected by various fungi. The secondary infections and rot destroy the cacao. Some preventative measures that farmers do are pruning, frequent harvesting, and pod sleeving. A newer tactic is pheromone trapping, which can indicate the level of infestation and disrupt the insect’s mating cycle. Overall, pests and disease cause about one million tons of cocoa loss every year (Duffy 2009).

Cacao is a also a main export. Currently and continuing in the future, it can help with the economic situation in Peru. The country is able to export cacao to twenty countries in Europe, the Americas, and Asia. The most cacao (16.9%) goes to Switzerland, followed by France (14.7%). Around the world, there has been a rise in cacao demands, which has helped Peru economically. There is a difficult balance with this. The demand for cacao means there need to be more fields used, which requires more deforestation (Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism 2013).

It has been reported that, “Illegal cultivation of agricultural plantations poses perhaps the greatest new threat to the forests of Peru, as the Peruvian government currently lacks the effective power to enforce laws and regulations, even when illegalities are clearly documented and reported,” from EIA’s Peru director Julia Urrunaga. The company, United Cacao, has used over $20 million for plantations throughout Peru. This land has the ability to produce about 10,000 tons of cacao per year, which would make it the world’s top producer of cacao (Post 2016).



Locally, cacao cultivation is being used and studied by conservationists with regards to agroforests. People are working on using these cacao agroforests help provide livelihoods of smallholders but also promote the ecological benefits such as conserving biodiversity, especially in this tropical area. Sustaining the production cacao is difficult is the tree population is falling because of demand and disease. This causes the plantations  to continue to move to other areas, which continues to reduce the biodiversity. Scientists believe that conservation combined with smallholder cacao production, could help sustain the cacao production, carbon storage, and biodiversity (Clough et al. 2009).

NGO Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) released a report in April about cacao plantations and the detrimental effect associated with deforestation. According to EIA, the seven thousand hectares of deforested land included two plantations in Peru operated by Cacao del Peru Norte and Plantaciones de Ucayali. The Ministry of Environment and Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation have tried to stop the plantations from operating. In Tamshiyacu, Cacao del Peru Norte started clearing forested land for cacao in 2013 without submitting any documentation. Cacao del Peru Norte is owned by United Cacao, which has been called the “only publicly listed pure-play cacao producer globally.” The company planned to plant around 2000 hectares by the end of 2015. These lands are at the headwaters of the Amazon river and required deforestation (Hill 2015). Its unfortunate, since cacao is part of Fair Trade, but because of United Cacao, small scale farmers still struggle to profit from cacao yields.


Because of the extensive deforestation and the difficulty growing cacao, some scientists have worked on genetically engineering cacao. The genome of the cacao plant has been sequenced to identify genes that control disease resistance, metabolites, and flavor components. Some scientist believe that this could help created a “disease-resistant, high-yield cacao plant.” No GMO has actually been developed yet, which is probably for the best. There are many arguments for and against GMOs and their effect on the environment, people, and economy (Rupp 2015). There have been advances in the study of GMO’s with other crops and other goods. There are many ways to create a crop that produces the best possible outcome. As for the cacao plant, it could be beneficial to look at a gene targeting the alleles responsible for pod production. Our novel idea would be a plant that can be made to produce more pods per tree than the agricultural space that would not need to be as large for plant production. This could help decrease deforestation rates and can also help small scale farmers earn more from the cultivation of their plants.



Bennett A. 2003. Out of the Amazon: Theobroma cacao enters the genomic era. Trends in Plant Science. 8(12): 561-563.

Bowers, J. H., Bailey, B. A., Hebbar, P. K., Sanogo, S., Lumsden, R. D. 2001. The impact of plant diseases on world chocolate production. Online. Plant Health Progress

Clough, Y., Faust, H. and Tscharntke, T. (2009), Cacao boom and bust: sustainability of agroforests and opportunities for biodiversity conservation. Conservation Letters, 2: 197–205.

Discover Peru. Native Crops of Peru- Pure Nacional Cacao. Website. Accessed April 26, 2017.

Duffy T. 2009. Managing Pest and Disease Pressures – Cocoa Farmers’ Perspective. Agricultural Risk Management Forum.

Hill, D. 2015. Can Peru stop ‘ethical chocolate’ from destroying the Amazon?. The Guardian.

Ministry of Foreign Trade and Tourism. 2013. Cacao in Peru: A Rising Star.  European Union: Peru Cooperation Project for Technical Assistance in Trade. PENX.

Post, Collin. 2016. Peru and cocoa firm in legal spat over Amazon plantations. Peru Reports.

Rice R. Greenberg R. 2000. Cacao Cultivation and the COnservation of Biological Diversity. Online. BioOne. 29(3): 167-173.

Rupp, R. 2015. Can GMOs Save Chocolate?. National Geographic: The Plate.

Zhang D. Arevalo-Gardini E. Mischke S. Zuniga-Cernades L. Barreto-Chavez A. Aguila J. 2006. Genetic Diversity and Structure of Managed and Semi-natural Populations of Cocoa (Theobroma cacao) in the Huallaga and Ucayali Valleys of Peru. Annals of Botany. 98(3): 647-655.

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