A Not-So-Sweet Lesson from Brazil's Cocoa Farms A fungus that only attacks cacao trees swept through eastern Brazil in the late 1980s and early '90s, ravaging the area's cocoa industry. The blight set in motion a series of events that changed the ecology of the entire region, a devastating lesson in the laws of nature.
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A Not-So-Sweet Lesson from Brazil's Cocoa Farms

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A Not-So-Sweet Lesson from Brazil's Cocoa Farms

A Not-So-Sweet Lesson from Brazil's Cocoa Farms

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We have a story now about chocolate and a disease that brought it down in southeastern Brazil, and it's a story about unintended consequences, of how a small thing, a fungus, affected two large things, a way of life and a watershed. Taken together, they prove the first law of ecology in nature: Everything is connected. NPR's Joanne Silberner reports.

(Soundbite of bird)

JOANNE SILBERNER:

Bahia in eastern Brazil is a lush tropical paradise. Everywhere you look - up, down, sideways - something is growing. This was once at the center of the chocolate universe.

On a hillside in Bahia, Claudio Dessimoni reflects on his role as a major player in the chocolate industry.

Mr. CLAUDIO DESSIMONI (Former Cacao Tree Farmer): I had very much a beautiful farm, in fact. I was a rich man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SILBERNER: The farm meant the world to him. It was thick with short, squat cacao trees studded with brightly pods, brightly colored and football-shaped, the source of chocolate. It was a 500-acre heirloom started by his grandfather in 1919.

Mr. DESSIMONI: From my family, my grandfather, it started in 1919.

SILBERNER: Seventy years later, on his watch, disaster struck. A fungal infection swept Bahia, witch's broom, a fungus that attacks only cacao trees.

That's the very little thing: a fungus carried on puffs of wind. It made Dessmoni's cacao trees look awful.

Mr. DESSIMONI: They looked completely different because the plants, they started dying, almost dying because all the leaves dropped, and they are completely brown.

SILBERNER: Clusters of dead leaves and stunted little branches looked like, well, witches' brooms stuck on the cacao trees.

Dessimoni went out with his workers, chopping off infected branches, planting new trees he thought might be resistant. It was like "The Sorcerer's Apprentice." He couldn't keep up. With mist in his eyes, he says the stress killed his wife.

Finally, in 2001, the government declared Dessimoni's farm nonproductive. That meant the government could seize it and give it to landless people.

Mr. DESSIMONI: Now I am poor, but I was rich.

SILBERNER: He doesn't know what's happened to his farm.

Mr. DESSIMONI: No, I never more went there. I mean, I believe that I can't see the farm anymore.

SILBERNER: This very small fungus brought down not only Dessimoni. Cacao production across the entire region plunged nearly 75 percent. Brazil went from being the third-leading cocoa producer to 13th, and all because of witch's broom.

This same fungus changed something else, as well. By destroying the cacao trees, it changed an entire ecosystem.

In the watershed that contained Dessimoni's farm, the ground is hard and dry in many places. Before the fungus, there used to be more than a million acres of lush rainforest here. The soil was moist and absorbent, but with the infestation of the cacao trees, people cut down the forest to make money from timber and pastureland instead. The exposed soil was tamped down by hooves and burned dry by the sun, and with that came huge changes to the water flow.

Neylor Calasans works at the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz in the city of Itabuna, on the Cachoeira River. He takes us to his lab to show us what's been happening since the fungus hit.

Mr. NEYLOR CALASANS (Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, Itabuna, Brazil): We're almost there, almost.

SILBERNER: Calasans has been charting water flow and precipitation in the watershed. He's got the data all mapped out on huge rolls of laminated paper. He pulls one from a stand.

Mr. CALASANS: This is one project that we had. We have some equipments inside the watershed monitoring the discharge, the daily discharge, and also the precipitation and the temperature and things like that.

SILBERNER: Squiggly red and green and blue lines on the graph show what happened when the land changed.

Mr. CALASANS: As long as we change it for pasture, the water is not able to enter the soil and just touch the soil and run off.

SILBERNER: So when it rains, instead of being absorbed by the spongy soil, the water rushes straight off the hard-packed dirt and into the river. Calasans charts show that now, there's sometimes no water left in the ground to feed the river during the dry season. There have been days where, in the city of Itabuna, the river simply does not flow.

Mr. CALASANS: And this is causing several problems because Itabuna, they are having problems of water supply for the city.

SILBERNER: And all because a microscopic fungus that attacked a crop, that made a farmer lose his farm, that turned lush dark forests into dried out pastureland and changed the way a river flowed.

But people are fighting back.

Mr. DESSIMONI: Do you know this bird? It's called (unintelligible), you see. They are black and yellow, and they are - they're (unintelligible).

SILBERNER: Former cacao farmer Claudio Dessimoni is now a manager at a government-subsidized tree nursery. At the stage in his life where he expected to be retired and watching his daughter run the family farm, he's supplying all sorts of trees to local farmers: fruit trees and trees whose wood can be harvested sustainably, and the nursery even has some cacao trees that may be resistant to the dreaded witch's broom fungus.

Mr. DESSIMONI: I didn't solve my problem, but probably I will solve the problems of another farms.

SILBERNER: The government's aim is to bring the land back closer to the original rainforest. As farmers plant the trees, chocolate may never again thrive in Bahia, but the other trees will make the soil moist and spongy, and maybe water will once again flow in the river on hot, dry days. Joanne Silberner, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: And you can find a photo essay on how chocolate goes from bean to bar on our Web site, NPR.org. You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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