Chocolate Takes Flight

By Hendrix, Steve | International Wildlife, September-October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Chocolate Takes Flight

Hendrix, Steve, International Wildlife

The way people such as Timoteo Dilbert grow cacao in Costa Rica has a big impact on birds in many North American backyards

As the first shafts of morning sun break through the thick forest canopy on Costa Rica's Caribbean coast, farmer Timoteo Dilbert is already at work. With each swing of his machete, a shower of dew and clipped grass sprays in the columns of sunlight surrounding his stooping form. Some of the spray settles on the dozens of bulbous pods growing on nearby trees. They are cacao pods, and each is packed with seeds that produce one of civilization's most delightful indulgences: chocolate.

Dilbert slashes his way like a buccaneer through the knee-high grass and weeds that grow quickly in the rainy season. Because he doesn't use herbicides on his organic farm, he begins most mornings with this ongoing battle against the jungle growth. His younger brother Jorge works nearby, inspecting individual pods of cacao (pronounced ka-KOW) for any sign of fungus. They know every branch of every tree and tend their 10-hectare (25-acre) cacao plantation more like gardeners than farmers.

Almost two decades after a fungus epidemic and falling prices caused cacao to fall out of favor as an export crop in Costa Rica, Dilbert and other farmers are trying to spark a renaissance of chocolate -- more specifically, organic chocolate. If they succeed, it will be good news for American chocolate lovers, but it may be even better news for American bird lovers. The boon to birds lies not in the gnarled cacao trees themselves, but in the rain forest trees soaring above them. Unlike most agriculture in the tropics, cacao farming doesn't require cutting down the rain forest. Every farmer that Dilbert and his allies can persuade to forgo timber and cattle in favor of cacao -- especially organic cacao -- could mean another patch of bird-friendly forest saved from chain saws and bulldozers.

"We're building a really strong tropical 'shade-policy' argument that cacao does two important things," says Robert Rice of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C. "It provides revenue for some incredibly poor communities, and it does so without destroying important forest habitats."

On his hillside farm, Dilbert is testing that hypothesis. His grove, one of the first completely organic cacao farms in the country, has become something of a demonstration farm for Costa Rican growers. "People from the other side of the country come here to see how we're doing this," Dilbert says. He's 38, wiry and voluble, and he talks about his land with the same broad gestures he uses in swinging his machete. "More people are reclaiming their cacao lands, and we want to provide an example of how cacao can be grown like this. We want to prove that this form of agriculture pays."

The new kind of cacao-growing for which Dilbert is an evangelist is really the oldest kind of all. Theobroma cacao evolved in the permanent dusk of these deep American jungles, and it still grows best in small patches like this one in the humid shadows of a healthy forest. So the Dilberts begin their day with an overture far more common to pristine tropical forests than to tropical farms: a cacophony of bird calls -- the startling squawk of toucans and parrots, and the sharper whistles of Baltimore orioles and other migratory birds passing through on their annual travels.

"We get all kinds of birds, parrots, monkeys on our farm," Dilbert says. A group of black howler monkeys passes nearby, and a train of leaf-cutter ants winds over the loamy earth, each laboring under its tiny green burden. "It's the moist, dark climate of the forest that provides the best environment for the cacao. So there's a lot of life in the trees above. Sometimes the monkeys drive us crazy, but we like having the animals here."

He's not the only one. Conservationists are taking notice of the wildlife that thrives on shade-covered cacao groves, particularly the migratory bird life.

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