Sat, Apr 14, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Chocolate forests: Can cocoa help save the Amazon?

Brazilian ranchers are planting cocoa on used-up pastures, helping to turn damaged parts of the Amazon basin green again

By Marcy Nicholson and Marcelo Teixeira  /  Reuters, NEW YORK and MEDICILANDIA, Brazil

Illustration: Lance Liu

For years, Valdomiro Facchi has made a living ranching on land carved from the Amazon rainforest. He is a small player in one of the world’s biggest environmental disasters.

However, now that his cattle have trampled the pastures to dust — and new laws prevent him from clearing fresh land — he has to find new income.

“I want to diversify,” the 68-year old rancher said, outlining plans to plant cocoa trees on his 300-hectare plot in Brazil’s Para State. “I want to have the cocoa income when profit from cattle ranching fails.”

Facchi illustrates a trend that is turning damaged parts of the Amazon basin green again, and creating an usual alliance between the agriculture industry and conservationists. Brazil’s cattle ranchers are planting cocoa on their used-up pasture, with financial support from international environmental groups.

That is a big change. For decades, ranchers have been the engine of clear-cutting in the Amazon rainforest that has rendered an area nearly the size of Spain treeless. Environmentalists have said the practice destroys wildlife habitat and undermines the planet’s ability to absorb carbon dioxide that causes global warming.

“Besides being a means of avoiding deforestation, cocoa plantations favor the local, regional and national economy,” international environmental group The Nature Conservancy said on its Web site.

The young trees will also bring change to global cocoa markets. Brazil’s National Association of the Cocoa Processing Industry (AIPC) expects the surge in planting to help double the nation’s output of the raw material in chocolate by 2028 to 400,000 tonnes a year. That increase would raise global output by about 5 percent.

The renewed planting could make Brazil one of the world’s top three cocoa growers again after the sector was decimated in the 1990s by a crop fungus called witches’ broom.

Conservationists and cocoa industry representatives expect the trend to help mitigate the effects of clear-cutting that has ripped about 430,000km2 from the Amazon rain forest since the 1980s.

Fifty percent of cocoa production growth will come from the Amazon, AIPC executive director Eduardo Bastos said, calling the cocoa farms there “chocolate forests.”

Green groups like The Nature Conservancy and the Amazon Fund have helped finance new cocoa plantations. The Amazon Fund — which was set up by the Brazilian government and takes international donations to combat deforestation — has poured 17 million reais (US$5.09 million) in grants into the crop.

Nearly 1,700km2 of degraded cattle pasture in Brazil has already been transformed into cocoa plantations, Bastos said.

Cocoa planting is driven mainly by new limits on the cattle industry that have changed the financial incentives for ranchers. In the Amazon, pasture can become degraded in as little as three years if not managed properly, making it hard to raise a thriving herd without new acreage.

Brazil in 2014 passed a law that allows landowners to clear only 20 percent of their property in the Amazon and requires some landowners to replant depleted areas.

That law aims to curb deforestation, which peaked in 2004 at a pace of 27,000km2 per year. Last year, the Brazilian Amazon lost 6,624km2 of rainforest.

Compared to ranching, cocoa can provide income from a relatively small plot with no need for constant expansion. The profits can be up to five times better, said Eduardo Trevisan Goncalves, project manager at Brazil’s Imaflora, an environmental group that did a study comparing income from cattle and cocoa in the region.

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