Chocolate, raw cacao, cinnamon sticks and star anise A\J AlternativesJournal.ca Photo © Africa Studio \ Fotolia.com

To help satisfy chocolate cravings all over the world, many Peruvian farmers have chosen to dedicate their lives to organic cacao cultivation. But they need more support from agricultural research institutes for local sustainable economic development to thrive.

Throughout history, cacao has been prized for its beauty, taste and value. Even Carl Linnaeus, who gave the plant its scientific name in 1737, respected its divine properties: theobroma cacao means “food of the gods.” Cacao is celebrated for being accessible to both rich and poor people, and for its nutritional and dietary properties such as its high level of flavonoids and energy-boosting antioxidants. The resource was also used as a form of currency during colonial history, having helped build and feed the economies of the Americas for decades. Since 1930, cacao has developed into an important crop for Peruvians due to its increasing international value and a growing global demand for high-quality, organic chocolate, as exports have increased over 400% over the last 15 years.

Cacao cultivation flourishes throughout Peru, where small farmers typically own and harvest humble one-hectare plots of land. In order to succeed and be sustainable in both the field and the marketplace, especially in the face of increasing global demand, current and new farmers need to be scientifically trained in the the best strategies for greenhouse nursing, plantation plotting, disease management and environmental conservation.

To further understand the importance of this tropical crop and how the Peruvian government supports its development, I spoke with agricultural engineers and learned that chocolate is not just a product but also a way of life in Peru.

“Cacao has changed the lifestyles of Peruvians," says Kadir Marquez, a Peruvian agricultural engineer who works for the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute (IIAP) in Tarapoto. To enhance the transfer of scientific and technical knowledge between academics and small farmers, Marquez is currently working on a cooperation project in the San Martin region, the second largest region of cacao production in Peru – and also where Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Moment rebels and Shining Path Maoist fighters fought in the 1980s and 90s.

Marquez is using his agricultural expertise to foster sustainable economic and environmental development among cacao farmers. Currently, he is researching bio-protection strategies (natural solutions) to help fight the diseases that are destroying farmers’ crops. A farmer himself, he has aspirations of international business endeavours in the organic chocolate trade, while supporting fellow cultivators grow healthy crops.

“Peru is the right place for cacao production due to the country’s agro-ecological diversity,” explains Marquez. Peru’s warm tropical climate, rich soil and diverse geography and topography provide for great growing conditions with no need for chemicals, which allows 90 per cent of the country’s cacao farming activities to be organic. Marquez is working to make the best use of these conditions, optimize production, and firmly establish Peru’s international reputation for its organic, high-quality chocolate.

Many Peruvian farmers used to focus on coca production to fulfill the international demand for cocaine, which provided high revenues. Research institutes such as IIAP have developed under the newly created Ministry of Environment to extensively research environmental practices for successful and sustainable cultivation, encouraging farmers to transfer from coca to cacao and to produce high-yielding and high-quality crops.

Many farmers have recognized this opportunity and the transition from cultivating coca to organic cacao has improved livelihoods and overall development of the country, including combatting drug trafficking. Although the economic and environmental planning of cacao cultivation has increased over the last 20 years, more work is needed, particularly with preventing and combating disease.

“Many farmers are [still] too focused on the present and do not plan for the future in regards to sustainable cultivation, disease management and business practices,” says Marquez. This is where research institutes come into play.

Institutes offer hands-on training sessions to facilitate planning, including but not limited to land design and systemization, disease control, quality maintenance and optimal crop usage to help preserve, protect and enhance Peru’s biodiversity and environmental sustainability.

“Peru needs more research institutes such as the IIAP to help farmers [in] sustainable decision-making processes, especially regarding disease management” proclaims Marquez. Approximately 50 per cent of cacao producers have the basic tools and knowledge to farm organically, but this is not enough for both national and international success. More farmers require access to the tools currently being developed at research institutes, including training in environmental protection methods, land conservation strategies and tropical crop bio-protection.

The most important scientific technological tools that are being developed today are the bio-protection controls for cacao disease management that Marquez is researching: sustainable and natural solutions applied to crops for disease prevention. Implementing these controls requires highly-trained skills that are only to be found in research institutes.

Marquez, alongside other researchers and master’s students at the IIAP, is studying cacao’s most prevalent invasive diseases: witches’ broom disease, black pod rot and frosty pod rot. The severity of these diseases is such that they account for 75 per cent production loss of crops all over Latin America.

Marquez’s bio-protection research experiments have been conducted in three provinces of San Martin – Lamas, San Martin and El Dorado – helping to determine the best bio-organic control efforts to prevent such diseases. Current procedures include using endophytic fungus. With the help of the IIAP, disease incidences in these three provinces have been reduced by 15 per cent. Overall, the IIAP and other institutes have reduced San Martin’s regional cacao disease from 70 per cent to 30 per cent today since the 80s.

An increase in the reach and use of these institutes will help even more farmers to better their environmental protection awareness, crop yield, market share and overall development status. It will also introduce more educational and career-focused specializations such as agricultural and environmental engineers into Peruvian society to help investigate and evaluate proper farming practices to conserve the country’s biodiversity.

Enrique Arevalo Gardini, the president of the Institute of Tropical Crops (ICT), also stresses the importance of resource sharing amongst institutions. ICT is a non-governmental organization, like the IIAP, and performs scientific research to enhance social and economic development for tropical crop producers. Gardini claims that in addition to a lack of scientific institutes there is a lack of cooperation and sharing between institutes to help introduce, integrate and promote better development models for cultivators, especially helping raise awareness for disease management and control. Gardini states, “We have all of the technology ready; we have been working steadily for 20 years to help Peru succeed via scientific development." Peru’s cultivators and researchers are dependent on state investment for institutes to drive the increased diffusion of scientific research and development.

With the integration of science, technology and development from research institutes such as the IIAP and the ICT, the future of cacao development can become more organized, productive and successful both economically and environmentally, as demand for organic cacao throughout the world increases.

Daniella Quarrey is completing her Bachelor of Environmental Studies in International Development and Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of Waterloo this semester. She is currently living in the Amazon jungle working at the Peruvian Amazon Research Institute helping foster sustainable development for cacao and coffee crops as a research assistant for bio-protection of tropical crops.

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