Before the Europeans arrived in the Americas on the hunt for gold, the region’s indigenous people used money that literally grew on trees. The tiny brown seeds that came to be known as cacao beans held real value, and the Incas, the Aztecs and Costa Rica’s Chorotega people all used cacao as currency. For them, it was worth as much as gold.
Today, with a chocolate shortage on the horizon, the value of Latin America’s cacao crop might rise again.
Political conflicts, poor work conditions and plant diseases are beginning to take a toll on the bulk of chocolate growers on Africa’s western coast, but interest in the product continues to climb.
To fill the growing demand, luxury chocolatiers and large corporations are looking to other parts of the world. The new shift has the potential not only to change the way we consume chocolate, but also to alter the face of sustainable agriculture in Central America.
Fifty years ago, the Salazar family farm was one of many on Costa Rica’s central Pacific coast, where at least 20 cacao plantations dominated the landscape. Now most of that land is clear-cut cattle pasture.
When the monilia fungus showed up in the 1970s, the Salazars decided to maintain their generations-old cacao crop, but with the added cost of aggressively monitoring trees. No one else followed suit.
The fungus devastated 80 percent of Costa Rica’s cacao crop, forcing nearly all of the country’s small growers to abandon or change their farms. While Pacific plantations began to favor ranching, the country’s Caribbean, once covered in cacao plantations, was replanted with bananas.
Crop diseases spread throughout Latin America, and while Central America struggled to manage fungus, South America lost crops to another disease called witch’s broom. Even the great producers in cacao’s cradle, Brazil and Ecuador, couldn’t keep up production. Chocolate companies turned to their already-thriving African plantations to make up the difference.