Planting cacao trees in beat-up rain forest could relieve pressure on virgin rain forest, like this one, near the continental divide in Costa Rica.

  This is only a test...
trees This idea of beating chocolate diseases by growing cacao in its natural habitat may be a great concept, but that doesn't mean it's a workable one. To find out if the reality is as sweet as the promise, 18 months ago Young embarked on a 10-year test of the idea in Costa Rica's Atlantic Coast rain forest. The experiment concerns 1,000 similar cacao trees planted in one of three growing conditions:

  bullet after selective logging (to simulate planting in disturbed forests);

  bullet in forest that resembles old growth; and

  bullet in plantations, under the shade of larger trees.

These pods have been harvested and will be split open to release the cocoa beans they hold.

Courtesy of Allen Young, Milwaukee Public Museum.

  In the first two conditions, the cacao trees were planted randomly, without clearing or soil preparation. "We're trying to reproduce how cacao grew in its natural state, in small, isolated clumps," Young says.

The goal of the long study is to examine survival, growth, and productivity. Young expects that trees in the extreme shade of the forest will yield less, but that lowered costs of production (due to reduced needs for pesticides) could make the process more attractive to farmers.

Slow and steady
About 18 months after starting, Young says the forest-planted trees are growing much more slowly, due to the limited sunlight, but are also suffering fewer attacks from insects. In general, he says, "You don't see many cases of defoliation by insects inside a rain forest -- like you'd find with the gypsy moth in Wisconsin." He attributes this to the extremely complicated food web in tropical forests, where there are so many predators that no single insect gets common. "There seems to be a sense of ecological balance operating, a system of biological checks and balances."

beans Finding an economic use for partly-preserved tropical forests could have lots of benefits for the declining tropical forests, which provide habitat for as many as half of the species on Earth. For example, it could offer habitat for wintering songbirds that migrate north and help control insects at both ends of their migratory pathway.

This happy conjunction of the ecological needs of cacao and migratory birds has sparked an unusual cooperative workshop between the chocolate industry, international conservation organizations, and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Panama. Curiously , a similar synergy has been proposed for another "can't-live-without-it" tropical tree product, coffee.

Even if the cacao-in-the-woods idea works, there's still a question to be answered: Would such a low-yielding enterprise attract small farmers who need cash to survive? Perhaps, Young says, if cacao becomes part of a larger economic picture. "If they have a diverse revenue base, it could become part of a sustainable system of life. ... The current test is intended to answer the first question: Is it biologically feasible?"

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