Cacao Turns over a New Leaf: Groups of Citizens in Itacare, Brazil, Once a Major Producer of This Important Export, Are Educating Locals about Environmental Protection While Promoting Development

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Located at the mouth of the Rio de Contas, in the heart of Bahia's Cacao Coast, Itacare has been dazzling outsiders for nearly three hundred years, when the first Europeans arrived to trade brazilwood with the local Pataxo Indians. Itacare's location has continued to shape the destiny of the town throughout its history--as a point of export for diamonds, sugarcane, and eventually cacao. But in the 1940s, because of extensive deforestation and erosion along the 250-mile river, the port became too shallow for ships to dock. Locals experienced firsthand the economic consequences of environmental degradation.

The crisis caused by the port's closing paled in comparison to the difficulties that the economy faced in 1989, when the first cases of witch's broom disease began withering the region's cacao trees, along with its main source of income. But through careful community planning and forward-looking economic and environmental policy, Itacare has been reborn and become a model of sustainable development, as well as attracting ecologically minded travelers from around the globe.

Periods of depression and economic prosperity were nothing new for the town, but the arrival of witch's broom disease (Crinipellis perniciosa) brought devastation to the region on a scale never before seen. The fungus, which thrives in balmy conditions and is spread by the wind, saps the tree's ability to produce cacao pods and desiccates the leaves into what look like a witch's broom.

By the mid-1990s, the fungus had cut cacao production by nearly 75 percent. "The disease spread so quickly," says Cleber Isaac Soares, one of the cofounders of the Itacare Eco Resort, "that by May of 1993, Brazil's major television networks had announced the destruction of the cacao economy."

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Brazil was the largest cacao producer in the world, a title it eventually lost to the Ivory Coast. At its peak in the 1987-88 planting season, the country produced 400,000 tons of cacao, according to Thomas Hartmann, a researcher for the Bahian Commercial Association. During the worst year of the cacao crisis, the 1999-2000 planting season, Brazil produced a mere 123,000 tons of cacao, says Hartmann.

Leaving the region became the most common reaction to the blight. Camacan, a town located near Itacare, lost roughly 50 percent of its population, according to Raul Valle, the director of the Cacao Research Center at the Comissao Executiva do Plano da Lavoura Cacaueira (CEPLAC). "Witch's broom disease caused immense problems for the region because of rampant unemployment," he says. "At the peak of the boom, roughly 250,000 people were employed in cacao cultivation." Today, some 100,000 people are employed in cacao, according to Valle's estimates. As a result, surrounding cities like Salvador, Ilheus, and Porto Seguro have received thousands of immigrants looking for work.

Those people who remained in the cacao-producing areas often looked to the rain forest to supplement their diminishing incomes. Hunting reached such significant levels that even the most common species were threatened. Many people turned to lumber poaching and subsistence agriculture, which relies heavily upon the slash-and-burn technique and involves significant deforestation. Farmers increasingly cultivated such staple crops as cassava root, which quickly depletes the soil.

Concerned for the future of Itacare, in 1994 a group of ecologically minded residents--many of them college professors, researchers, and graduate students from the State University of Santa Cruz (Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz--UESC)--joined forces to found the Institute of SocioEnvironmental Studies (Instituto de Estudos SocioAmbientais do Sul da Bahia--IESB), which began lobbying for preservation of the area. IESB and its director, Rui Rocha, a graduate student in agronomy, recognized the area's potential for ecotourism and began developing a program of sustainable development for the region. …