The Paradox of Chocolate Agrobiodiversity

Humboldt, Raimondi, and Indigenous Smallholders in South America

The cacao from Peru is the coin that is more used….also they buy chocolate with it….Without it people cannot live and if they were to lack cacao, particularly the poor people, they will perish (Alonso Diaz, 1626, in Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage)

By Karl Zimmerer

The agrobiodiversity of cacao has become increasingly appreciated at the same time it is most endangered. Smallholder farmers and indigenous growers of cultivated cacao and their landscapes containing wild cacao are particularly caught in these contradictory trends. Cacao agrobiodiversity is in demand owing to the booming market for fine craft chocolate and innovations such as direct, bean-to-bar and tree-to-bar certification and traceability. New chocolatier and consumer trends place a premium on local cacao types, or landraces, that are direct marketed and occasionally branded as Tribal Cacaos. Rarity is a source of value for marketed cacao agrobiodiversity such as the once little-known landraces of Chuncho Cusco and Beni Wild. The success of these heirloom varieties is not geographically constrained. Chuncho cacao, for example, has been regularly awarded a top prize in the International Chocolate Awards. Additional enhanced usefulness of cacao agrobiodiversity stems from the biological and genetic variation needed to resist disease and pest outbreaks, confront climate change, and foster sustainable tropical agroecosystems.

Yet the extent of cacao agrobiodiversity continues to experience decline in tropical Latin America, the Caribbean, and globally. Driving this decline are tropical deforestation, the expansion of industrial agriculture, abandonment of cacao agroforests, and displacement of heirloom varieties and shade-grown agroecosystems by “improved” clones with higher full-sun yields. Improved clonal varieties provide the so-called bulk cacao that now accounts for upwards of 95 percent of the world market. Small family farms comprise approximately 80 percent of the global cacao production, which is finicky and requires close attention to individual trees. The cacao-growing smallholders, who include many indigenous growers, must confront a current panoply of formidable production and marketing constraints as well as potential opportunities. Together these complex forces create the present-day paradox of cacao agrobiodiversity

Cacao tree and fruit in 2016 in a former farmstead, Upper Amazon, Peru (photo by author)

The current paradox of cacao agrobiodiversity can be traced to the historical forces of people and environments in Latin America and the Caribbean. Rooted in the foodways, religious practices, and economies of pre-European empires such as the Maya and Aztec, the agrobiodiversity of cacao was transformed under colonialism. Chocolate became a global luxury item beginning in the late 1500s in imperial Spain, the Netherlands, France, and Italy, and its consumption a marker of upper-class society. Colonial cacao production proliferated, first in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, and later in northern South America (present-day Venezuela and Colombia) and to the south and east in Ecuador, Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia. Parenthetically, it is worth noting is that formative pre- and post-colonial phases, including global expansion beyond Latin America, produced similarly influential legacies though beyond this article. Colonial cacao landscapes relied on the brutally extracted labor of Native American peoples and enslaved Africans in Latin America and the Caribbean. This social and environmental history presaged the dual promise-and-peril of cacao agrobiodiversity.


Global Cacao Geographies and Agrobiodiversity: Scoping the Paradox

Today, chocolate is a premier global commodity. The fruits of the cacao tree are produced, processed, marketed and consumed across the world in an industry predicted to surpass $US140 billion by 2024. Globally, the ecology and production of cacao—though not the financial returns—are concentrated in the landscapes and livelihoods of small-scale growers. More than 80 percent of cacao is grown on farms less than 5 hectares. Cacao production today traverses Latin America and the Caribbean, led by Brazil, Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Peru, Mexico and Venezuela. More extensive production occurs across the tropical lowlands of west Africa (such as Cote de Ivoire, Ghana, and Benin) and Southeast Asia (such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea).

But global cacao production is verging on crisis due to climate and land use changes and outbreaks of disease and pests. The biodiversity of cacao (agrobiodiversity) contributes promising solutions to these formidable challenges through beneficial agroecological properties and genetic traits. Cacao agrobiodiversity consists of the core of the cultivated species, Theobromum cacao, and the agroecosystems where it is grown. Cultivated cacao trees originated in tropical Latin America and the Caribbean known as the biogeographic realm of the Neotropics or New World tropics. The Latin binomial of its scientific name (Theobromum cacao) joins words signifying “food of the gods” and the plant name Europeans adopted from either Nahuatl or an Olmec-related language. Today cultivated cacao is generally divided at the sub-specific level into fine-flavor types, the source of craft or gourmet cacao, and so-called bulk cacao used to produce low-cost powder and butter as commodity inputs. In addition, cacao agrobiodiversity consists of scores of local varieties or landraces and a complex of 22 related wild species. While the first domestication dates to approximately 4,000 years ago in Mexico, most cacao agrobiodiversity is concentrated in the tropical lowlands of South America and the landscapes of smallholder farmers and indigenous people.


Historical Traces of the Chocolate Paradox: Humboldt, Raimondi and Indigenous People of the South American Lowlands and Andean Foothills

Historical traces of the present-day cacao paradox are illustrated in the works of two scientists, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and Antonio Raimondi (1826-1890). Travelling extensively in Latin America, their insightful encounters with cacao-growing landscapes, people, and agrobiodiversity reflected an intriguing set of similarities and differences. Both Humboldt and Raimondi were born and lived in Europe through young adulthood and there gained education and initial experience pursuing careers in mining and geology. Each leveraged the latter to undertake extensive travel travels in Latin America. Independently, they integrated a wide range of academic disciplines to develop unique expertise in the cultural knowledge and usages of environmental resources and broadly defined economics. Eventually both authored multiple major treatises interweaving accounts of environmental conditions, cultural lifeways, and economic history and prospects. Notably, the accounts of both Humboldt and Raimondi featured cacao.

Notwithstanding parallels, the personal trajectories of Humboldt and Raimondi diverged in their scientific and cacao-specific legacies. Humboldt returned to Europe from his five-year Latin American travel (1799-1804) as a world-renowned scientist. By contrast, Raimondi remained in Peru as a major scientific and public figure albeit in obscurity on the global stage to the present. Recently, popular scholarly treatises have championed Humboldt’s scientific travel as pioneering the pillars of both planetary earth system science and modern global environmentalism and sustainability. Raimondi, by contrast, is an exemplar of mostly forgotten scientific excellence on the global periphery. To some extent, this contrast reflects distinct backgrounds. Humboldt, heir to a wealthy Prussian family and benefitting from advanced education, gained the decades-long backing of Europe’s leading scientific institutions. By contrast, Raimondi was born into the family of a tailor and his educational background likewise was modest in comparison. Travelling in 1844 from Milan, Italy, he became a luminary in Peruvian scientific and national life though little known internationally.

Humboldt’s engagement with cacao became the more well-known though both his observations and those of Raimondi hinted at the contrast of cacao’s commercial valuation and the marginalized agrobiodiversity of wild and local types in local consumption. Humboldt praised the “salutary properties of chocolate” as well as the sizable cacao economies and exports of Spanish colonies such as Mexico and Venezuela. Based on his travel and colonial records, Humboldt estimated that colonial cacao was being produced with 280,000 trees. His map of South America illustrated the expanse of colonial Venezuela and neighboring Colombia where he travelled extensively in creating these estimates. This travel was undertaken with his close colleague, the French botanist Aimé Bonpland (1773-1858).

Humboldt’s “Map of Columbia” (1826): Wild cacao abounded in cultural forests of the Andean foothills and Orinoco lowlands

Venezuelan cacao accounted for more than half of colonial production. Enslaved Africans and African Americans laboring in colonial cacao production surpassed several thousand in Venezuela alone. Earlier in the colonial period, Humboldt wrote, these colonial cacao producers had exploited the labor of enslaved Native Americans. A stalwart opponent of slavery, Humboldt gathered colonial-era records to demonstrate the diminishing trade of enslaved Africans prior to the abolition of slavery in Venezuela in 1810. He suggested that cacao was increasingly produced with the labor of “free” peasant smallholders.

Semi-cultivated and wild cacao, both central elements of cacao agrobiodiversity, were embedded in the agroforest landscapes and livelihoods of indigenous people and smallholders. Humboldt and Bonpland detailed botanical specimens and vegetative occurrence of this cacao (Figure 3). They described abundant “thick forests” of wild cacao along the Upper Orinoco river that were associated with indigenous peoples. These indigenous cultures commonly consumed the fresh pulp of the pod as a food, but only rarely as a beverage. Indigenous consumption of pulp and ensuing seed dispersal were major factors in the distribution and dynamics of wild cacao in what were essentially indigenous cultural forests of the tropical lowlands.

Cacao figured prominently in the founding treatises on global and Neotropical biogeography credited to Humboldt. Humboldt featured the elevation range of cultivated cacao between sea level and approximately 1,000 meters above sea level as symbolizing the lowest elevation zone, or Tierra Caliente, anchoring his iconic framework of mountain biogeography. In addition, estimating the latitudinal limit of this wild cacao as 6 degrees North, Humboldt is credited with the first accurate approximation of its biogeography in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Aimé Bonpland’s scientific illustration of cacao

Several decades after Humboldt, cacao was one of the crops noted by Antonio Raimondi. Travelling extensively in Peru between 1850 and 1869, Raimondi promoted cacao as promising the modernization of agriculture. He described cacao production on manorial estates (haciendas) in the Andean foothills and Upper Amazon of the Peruvian montaña in several works including his multi-volume El Perú and exquisite maps published separately (Figure 4). This cacao was produced with the labor of indigenous people entrapped through indentured servitude, debt peonage, and other forms of brutal exploitation. Raimondi, like Humboldt, eyed modern transport, communication, and market integration as promising much-needed “advancements.” The “civilizing and energizing locomotive,” for example, was envisioned by Raimondi as transporting cacao and transplanting new centers of commerce in the montaña.

Raimondi’s map of travel in the cacao-containing montaña of Peru (published in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, 1868)

In the Peruvian montaña, wild cacao and local landraces---today called heirloom varieties---were significant elements noted by Raimondi. Cacao trees in their “wild state” (estado silvestre) were either domesticates that had naturalized or truly wild populations. Raimondi valued the superior quality of local “white-and-brown” cacao landraces and drew attention to the pair of indigenous cacao landraces known as chuncho and común. Daniel Gade, a preeminent cultural plant geographer of the twentieth century, similarly observed that the Machigengua, Piro, and neighboring indigenous people were accustomed to fermenting cacao pulp in a beverage known as “chicha de cacao.” The current chocolate boom features Chuncho cacao among other locally distinct and varied heirloom varieties. While reflecting and reaping the rewards of customs and knowledge that shaped cacao co-evolution, it is providing benefits to select groups of indigenous and smallholder people.


Paradoxes of Cacao Agrobiodiversity and Agroecology in the New Chocolate Boom

The insights of Humboldt, Raimondi, and Gade have been furthered by current levels of cacao interest and information. Take the example of Chuncho cacao, also known as Chunco Cusco, that is internationally prized and marketed (Figure 5). Chuncho is embraced by the Slow Food Movement, a global trend-setting organization that promotes local, healthy foods and farming. Slow Food extolls the exquisite aroma and flavor of Chuncho cacao, in addition to the terroir-type excellence of Cusco growing conditions and its key role in the local economy. They recognize the long-term continued role of the Matsiguenka indigenous people of lowland Cusco in Chuncho production. “Tree-to-bar” chocolatiers, such as the brand Machiyenga, likewise seek to highlight the indigeneity of this cacao. But this prodigious attention to Chuncho cacao is raising new issues. For instance, Quechua speakers use the term “chuncho” to denote the indigenous people of the Amazon and often invoke a stereotype of war-like savagery.

Retail branding of heirloom cacao as rare

Scientific investigations have shed much new light on the agrobiodiversity and agroecology of South American cacao. Some probing insights are positioned in new marketing information. For example, flavors and food quality of aromatic pulp among Amazonian indigenous peoples have become recognized as integral to evolving potential for niche cacao brands. Indigenous traditions of consuming the pulp and its juices in the cacao pod lead to complex and compelling flavor profiles. Pulp flavor transfers naturally to the cacao bean, contributing to the distinctive taste profiles of Chuncho and other heirloom varieties. The key role of edible, selected pulp in the evolution of cacao underscores the integral, long-term role of indigenous Amazonian people. This co-evolutionary role of cacao pulp can be traced beyond humans to the fruit-eating role of mammals, such as monkeys, kinkajous, coatis, squirrels, and deer. Indeed, fruit-eating or frugivory required for seed dispersal is obligatory in cacao. Humboldt had commented presciently on the close association of mammal frugivores to the stands of cacao as well as its susceptibility to pests and disease that remain major production problems.

The agroecological roles of canopy shade trees and wildlife, particularly birds, have become key in certified cultivation of fine-flavor cacao. This interest echoes Humboldt’s observation that successful cacao cultivation was “sheltered…by the foliage of the erythrina and plantain.” Today, these species of canopy shade trees and others are the sine qua non of certified chocolate. Numerous initiatives for shade-grown cacao stem from the model of bird-friendly coffee first launched two decades ago by the Migratory Bird Center of the Smithsonian Institution. Subsequently, the adoption of shade-grown, bird-friendly cacao has been widely promoted by the Rainforest Alliance and similar organization promoting environmental sustainability and indigenous rights while creating scenarios for sustainable development. Implementation relies on the extensive evaluation, monitoring, and traceability of cacao and the agroecosystems where it is sourced in order to enable the certified labelling of Bird-Friendly, Bird-Safe, and Deforestation-Free chocolates.

These agroecological concerns and strategies have been prominent in post-conflict cacao or “peace cacao” highlighted in new projects in Colombia during recent years. Cacao had already figured prominently in rural development visions that predate the November 2016 Peace Agreement and a plethora of new initiatives. Indeed, cacao had comprised the most common crop in Colombia’s rural Productive Alliances Support (PAAP) launched in 2002, reaching more than 17,000 families and covering more than 30,000 hectares. Since the Peace Agreement the Colombian government, the United State Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) along with various public organizations and private companies have financed cacao agroforestry in Colombia. They hope the incentivized cacao-growing will provide viable cash-cropping that enhances sustainability amid the post-conflict surge of extractive industries such as timber and possible expansion of coca. These present-day programs echo the decades of the 1980s and 1990s when cacao was a favored crop of the “drug substitution” programs of U.S. AID aimed at replacing coca cultivation in Peru and Bolivia.

Smallholder and indigenous people have persisted in producing cacao because it is a fickle and labor-demanding crop of hot, humid tropical lowlands. The cacao initiatives mentioned above illustrate niche benefits that can be noticed locally felt but that are not widespread. These attempts have translated to decidedly mixed success regarding specific agrobiodiversity and agroecology goals as well as the general viability of cacao production. Detailed analyses of the PAAP in Colombia and the Huallaga Valley programs of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Peru indicate that anticipated cacao markets and price premiums did not meet the forecast levels. A similar scenario seems to characterize the tropical lowlands of Cusco that are home to the prized Chuncho cacao. Many continue to produce monocultures of relatively high-yielding varieties of bulk cacao. One hardy clonal type known as CCN-51 remains a stalwart of production. Conversely, agroecological techniques have been patchily adopted at best. In short, only some cacao-growers and local communities in varied places across South America have been able to adopt agrobiodiverse cacao and agroecological practices.


Reprising the Chocolate Paradox

A paradox refers to a phenomenon at odds with conventional ideas of what is reasonable or possible. Accordingly, the current upward trend of chocolate interest and its defining emphasis on local cacao suggests strengthening the value of cacao agrobiodiversity and agroecological approaches among smallholder and indigenous people including many that experience poverty and precarious livelihoods. The expectation of potential benefits is reasonable in the comparatively agrobiodiversity-rich contexts of Latin America and the Caribbean where agroecological approaches are at least moderately well-known. But in general, it is simply untrue that cacao agrobiodiversity on-the-ground has gained significantly in value or viability across the broad swath of these regions to-date. Instead, the cultivation of heirloom varieties, the landraces of cacao, and wild cacao trees of tropical forests have tended to experience overall decline during recent decades.

The management of cacao genetic resources manifests certain success although it consists mainly of the ex situ collections of stored germplasm that are divorced of benefits to and from indigenous and smallholder agroecosystems. Similarly, it is small pockets of agrobiodiverse cacao and agroecological production that have prospered in recent years. This success owes partly to the expanding numbers and thriving culture of high-quality, craft chocolate consumers and growing numbers of aficionados, connoisseurs, and entrepreneurs. Their positive influence continues to raise hopefulness of expanding benefits. This hopefulness needs to be tempered and guided by a perspective on justice and fairness since, to-date, these benefits have been limited in degree and extent among smallholders and indigenous people. Prioritizing justice and fairness for cacao farmers and workers, including the sustainability of their landscapes and communities, offers an opportunity to tackle head-on the persistent paradox of cacao and its agrobiodiversity.


Karl Zimmerer, the 2016 DRCLAS Custer Visiting Scholar, is the E. Willard and Ruby S. Miller Professor in the department of geography and the programs in ecology and rural sociology at Pennsylvania State University, where he directs the GeoSyntheSES lab. Zimmerer has written and edited seven books, most recently  Agrobiodiversity: Integrating Knowledge for a Sustainable Future (2019, MIT Press), that was reviewed in the Fall/Winter 2020 issue of ReVista. He has authored more than one hundred articles and book chapters. His new 2019 and 2020 pieces are co-authored with collaborators in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, and Bolivia and appear in the journals Anthropocene, Journal of Latin American Geography, Global Change Biology, Geoforum, Land Use Policy, and The Journal of Nutrition.