Reviving Cocoa in Brazil’s Bahia State: Flavor, Biodiversity, and the Bean-to-Bar Movement

Author Patricia Moles

Sustainability Specialist
Insituto Arapyau
Photo by Dengo | Cacau do Brasil

Everybody in Brazil knows the story of Bahian cocoa. Theobroma cacao originated in Mesoamerica and had been cultivated in the Amazon basin by indigenous people for thousands of years before the Portuguese colonized present-day Brazil in the sixteenth century. At that time, landowners established large cocoa plantations in the Bahia region. They relied on the labor of thousands of impoverished farmworkers, and prospered immensely from enormous yields, high prices (three times that of 2017 prices, adjusted for inflation), and relatively low global competition. But, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the tide turned: the devastating witches’ broom fungus destroyed cocoa trees throughout Bahia, infecting and decimating a region half the size of Belgium. Brazilian cocoa production dropped from 400,000 tons in the 1990s to 160,000 tons in 2003. The Bahian economy was left in shambles and thousands of families fled bankrupt and barren farms for cities. At the same period, countries in West Africa and Southeast Asia began exporting comparable cocoa beans and increased global competition pushed Brazilian cocoa prices down.

So, in 2018, what kind of strategies are Bahian cocoa farmers putting forward to sustainably grow the sector once again?

Today’s consumers are more and more aware of climate change and poverty issues in the cocoa supply chain, and are seeking out premium chocolate products, with traceable and guaranteed sustainability credentials. With the help of Instituto Arapyau and the Cocoa Innovation Center, cocoa in Bahia has responded to this change in consumer demands by promoting smaller farming operations focused on sustainability and quality.

Following the witches’ broom crisis, the Brazilian governmental agency CEPLAC developed new resistant planting material. As a result, today’s Bahian cocoa has very unique flavor and quality. This differentiating factor draws in consumers looking for specific flavor attributes. Furthermore, in the southern Bahia, cocoa trees grow under the canopy of the Atlantic Forest, which is one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, in what is referred to as the cabruca system. Cabruca preserves valuable species of trees and plants while allowing farmers to benefit from the land by growing cocoa. Yields are much lower than in traditional production models, but cabruca promotes biodiversity and sustainability. The origin label of southern Bahia is now synonymous with reliable sourcing of quality and sustainable cocoa. Environmentally-minded consumers can appreciate the sustainability guarantee offered by Bahian cocoa.

In addition, the bean-to-bar movement has been taken up as a successful business model by many cocoa producers in Bahia, including WCF member Dengo. Bean-to-bar refers to smaller brands that focus on innovative products that promote high levels of traceability for their cocoa beans. In this context, entrepreneurial cocoa-farm owners put forward biodiversity and sustainability in production models as important assets. By developing innovative farming practices, these Bahians enhance the flavor and quality of the cocoa pods they harvest, roast and sell; as a result, their premium product garners higher prices on the world market. The cocoa farmers of southern Bahia, instead of trying to compete with the world’s new cocoa-producing leaders, have revived and revolutionized their businesses by targeting the niche market of traceable chocolate products focused on sustainability, single origin, fine flavor, and incomparable quality.