Cacao Agroforestry: the Cacao tree is a symbol of the tropical forest’s preservation

Every time they burn a tree, they release its stored carbon. The planet is getting warmer because we are eliminating shade. In conversation with Diego Badaro, founder AMMA Chocolates

Native to the Amazon basin the tropical fruit grows twenty degrees above and below the Equator line. It was born in a forest under the dense canopy of trees. The rainforest and cacao co-exist in a symbiotic relationship. Cacao requires a forest to thrive, the forest needs cacao to flourish. «The cacao tree is a symbol of the tropical forest’s preservation, and the tropical forest is the symbol of the planet’s preservation».

Deforestation in Brazilian rainforests

Portuguese colonization triggered the first wave of mass deforestation in Brazil. Clear-cutting of the forests orchestrated to make way for coffee and sugarcane plantations, cattle grazing, railway tracks, human occupation, and the military.

The exploitation of natural resources without a thought of conservation led to the killing of animals, falling trees, contamination of water springs, destroyed rivers, and burning the woods to the ground. Brazilwood – the namesake tree – was cut down to almost extinction to make furniture and musical instruments.

«It is considered as a noble tree for it doesn’t rot and is not prone to insect attacks. We exploited the tree that we are named after», says Badaro.

In 1989, the arrival of Witches’ Broom in Brazil’s Cacao Coast stimulated a tide of deforestation. The disease spread like wildfire causing the infestation of cacao cultivations in the region of Southern Bahia.

The destruction of cacao forests

Within the span of a few years, cacao production fell by ninety percent. Plantations locked up, cacao forests destroyed, people lost their jobs, and Brazil turned from being the third largest cacao producer in the world into a net importer of cacao.

«Mata Atlântica suffers from micro deforestation as compared to the Amazon. Here people started to cut down small plots of land during the Witches’ Broom. Bahia was home to thirty-three percent of Mata Atlantic Forest, but because of witches’ broom, people started to deforest whatever they had to sell the wood as a survival instinct», explains Badaro.

Despite the environmental disasters, there are still no government laws that safeguard the rainforests. «We are losing more forest patches every day. Forty percent of the deforestation in the world in 2021 was in Brazil. Around 1.5 million hectares of forest destroyed».

With each fallen tree the planet gets warmer. Cacao works as a barrier to the trade of woods. In areas not under cacao plantations, widespread deforestation for trade happens. By reforesting the razed areas, the tropical fruit helps mitigate the effects of clear-cutting.

Chocolate: a tree-to-bar story

Badaro has worked hard to maintain, and also to restore, his little piece of the rainforest. Brought up in an environment stimulated by the forces of nature, Badaro’s connection with the forest began in his childhood.

The idea of dedicating his life towards the regeneration of the family plantation dawned upon him during a chance visit with his partner, Luiza. «After the witches’ broom in 1989 everyone decided to abandon the plantations around the area. My mother on the other hand decided to stay back and hold on to her land. But over the years the plantation was dilapidating and needed care to regenerate.

From the onset, their vision was to present cacao as a tool for people to reconnect with the forest. The word ‘Amma’ means mother forest. Coined as a tribute to the rainforests – Amazon and Mata Atlântica. 

Nestled in the Atlantic Forest in the cacao coast of southern Bahia, Badaro’s plantation spreads across 150 hectares. Inside Amma, cacao grows in an agroforestry, shaded with fifty-meter-tall trees. The scent of petrichor permeates the forest.

Echoing with birds and insects; a thousand shades of green prevail. Adorned with reddish-yellow fruits with hues of purple and green, cacao trees grow in regions with temperatures above seventy-seven degrees with abundant rainfall.

The establishing of AMMA Chocolates

For the fifth-generation cacao grower the art of making craft chocolate was an instinctive pursuit. In 2007 Badaro and Fredrick Shilling – his American business partner – established AMMA Chocolates. By 2010 they launched their first chocolate bars. As their core philosophy, AMMA endeavors to work towards the alleviation of environmental and social inequalities. 

Making chocolate is a tree-to-bar process. Inside the thick yellow husk of a ripened cacao pod, the beans are coated in a white sour-tasting pulp. After extraction, the pulp undergoes fermentation and drying. Followed by roasting, coaching, tempering, and molding.

The cacao beans change many hands before their metamorphosis into a chocolate bar. The bittersweet world of chocolate is not devoid of discrepancies. The true cost of beans gets lost in the supply chain, Badoro points out.

«When you sell a kilo of cacao for two dollars to a French chocolatier, he would transform that into a fancy patisserie, and later sell the same kilo of chocolate for 600 dollars. It is due to these disparities, there is a lack of interest in the people to work on the land».

Atlantic Forest- Amazon’s forgotten sister 

Mata Atlântica is the second largest block of rainforest after the Amazon in Latin and Central America. Declared a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, and a National Treasure in the Brazilian Federal Constitution of 1988.

Juxtaposing different forestry and ecosystems, the Atlantic Forest presents a mosaic of environments; ombrophilous (open, dense, mixed) forests, deciduous and semi-deciduous seasonal tropical forests, mangroves and sandbanks.

A concentration of Atlantic Forest is found in the Southeastern region of the state of Bahia. A large part of this goes to cacao agroforestry – known as Brazil’s Cacao Coast. The first colonizers arrived in the state Bahia in 1500. Salvador, the state’s capital, was also Brazil’s first capital until the second half of the XVIII Century. As the initial sugar plantations and other activities, such as gold and diamond extraction, installed in this region, over the centuries Bahia received an immense number of slaves, mostly from West Africa.

LAmpoon Magazine Farmers with cacao pods in the wild forest, Amma chocolate
Farmers with cacao pods in the wild forest, Amma chocolate

One of the most threatened ecosystems in the world: the forest

The forest, which covers 33% of the state, is one of the most threatened ecosystems in the world, with less than 1% of the native forest remaining. «The media lays a lot of emphasis on the Amazon as it is the mother of the planet. It’s time we start focusing on the daughter, the Atlantic Forest, as well. Mata Atlântica suffers from micro deforestation as compared to Amazon’s massive one. Bahia used to have a lot of Mata Atlântica but because of witches’ brooms people cut off all the trees of their plantations to sell as wood as a survival instinct», says Badaro. 

As for the Brazilian government, «environment has never been on the agenda. Economic development always took precedence». Badaro further states, «Bahia boasts of the biggest biomass of Atlantic Forest. But the government wants to implement a sea port to ship iron. They want to build a three-kilometer-long port for an iron mine that will last only twenty years. If we invest 1/10th of the money in the regeneration of the forest region, we would have made, only through chocolate, ten times more money than we will make from exploiting Mother Earth for yet another metal». 

Forging a connection between man and the forest

For the 40-years-old cacao grower, the integration of humanity and the forest is imperative. «It is our challenge to connect people to the land through food. Not just food but the complexity that goes behind making the food. When you eat the chocolate, you taste the forest, the environment, and the hands that made it. Food is the connection we have with the land, but it is of the least priority for people in the context of the environment».

Amma’s environmental mission goes beyond producing ethical chocolates. Badoro and his team are building partnerships with farmers across the region, to create a series of products that honor the edible treasures of the forest.

«We give the farmers a few years to implement an agroforestry system and then help them convert the raw materials into sellable products through structured laboratories. Our mission is food sovereignty which is enabled through self-sufficient food production».

Their aim is to incentivize the farmers to adapt regenerative farming methods, instead of falling back to high-yield monoculture, which leads to bulldozing of the forest land, orchestrated by the large corporations. 

Traceability of food through blockchain

He is further betting on a model to cut short the supply chain by eliminating the middle-men. «We are developing a platform where the consumers will have all the traceability of food through blockchain. We want to remove all certifications and create a system of trust and sell directly to the consumers».

Badaro believes a forest that is alive, can generate resources and bring balance to life. «Forests are about collaboration, not competition. We need to enable interactions between elements and species of the forest. We don’t look or search outside our plantations for anything».

At Amma, biodynamic farming practices implemented generate fertilizers made of decaying components of the land. «We have deployed a bio-digester that takes in and ferments organic waste to produce bacteria beneficial for soil health. This includes cowling, fish bones, sea water, mangrove mud, dead leaves and fruits, to name a few. We apply it to the soil as it helps bring back life to the land. It works as a bomb of bacteria to establish the process of regeneration, helping reinstall the soil nutrients previously lost».

Cabruca agroforestry to protect biodiversity

The traditional way of growing cacao – in an agroforestry – is Cabruca. Defined as the forestry system that utilizes native trees as shade for cacao, Cabruca facilitates the preservation of biodiversity, while mimicking the original forest.

In this system some of the understory, sub canopy and overstory trees are removed from the primary forest. Young cacao shrubs are then planted under the shade of the remaining canopy. Periodic weeding by farmers impedes regeneration of the original forest vegetation in the cabruca understory.

«Every time we prune or graft the branches of a tree it triggers growth – the Cabruca system works on the same principle. We eliminate harmoniously to balance and make way for the new life. When a dying shade tree falls, we plant another one. It’s like the cycle of humanity», explains Badaro.

Plants don’t grow in straight lines in the natural world

Plants group together in polyculture, each occupying a different space that supports the other. The cabruca system honors biodiversity by exhibiting an avalanche of miscellaneous tree and plant species.

«Our cacao trees are intercropped with bromeliads, evergreen trees, bushes, palm trees, ivies, ferns, fig trees, edible palms, bignonias, jacarandas, Brazilwood, peroba, jequitibá rosa, cedar, tapirira, andira, quaresmeira and sapucaia».

The Bahian word ‘Cabroca‘, finds its roots in the dialect of a nomadic tribe from the Amazon. The tupi-guarani arrived in Bahia two centuries before the colonizers established the forestry system. «In Bahia 90% of cacao is planted through the cabruca system».

To be considered a cabruca, an area has to present a certain density and diversity of canopy trees – vertical stratum of the forest per hectare. The density can be defined as low, where the shade trees are 18-50 per hectare; medium from 50 to 85 and high when is over 85.

Shade-grown cacao: a way for carbon sequestration 

Forests sequester carbon by capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and transforming it into biomass through photosynthesis. In the wake of plummeting greenhouse emissions, estimating the amount of carbon sequestration through different farming methods, becomes fundamental.

Shade-grown cacao cultivation gives way to a deciduous forest. Characterized with generational deposits of dried fallen leaves of the shade trees on the forest floor. Resulting in forest soil with a thick hummus layer formed by the decay of leaves, fruits, feces and dead animals. «In this case the shaded soil – high on humidity – acts as a natural mulch and improves the organic-matter content of the soil.

Co2 stored in forest biomass of shade trees

By doing so it helps mitigate the effects of global warming. «Every time they burn a tree, they release its stored carbon. The planet is getting warmer because we are eliminating shade. The variation in plant density affects the percentage of shade.

Plantations with lesser shade trees account for lesser biomass and, therefore, a low carbon stock. Increase in productivity comes accompanied by a decrease in shading, and a fall in carbon stock due to the removal of trees from the system.

59% of the total aboveground carbon in the entire region of southern Bahia is estimated to be in Cabrucas (Schroth et al. 2015).

AMMA chocolate

Amma Organic Chocolate founded by Diego Badaró is part of the 4th generation of a family that grows cocoa in southern Bahia, together with Luiza Olivetto and Frederick Schilling

Chetna Chopra

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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item collections in limited edition
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Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]