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article imageHow Chocolate Can Save the Planet

By Chris V. Thangham     Nov 20, 2007 in Environment
Researchers say chocolate is not only good for the body and the soul, but also healthy for the environment. They want to help farmers grow more gtrees in the shrinking rain forests and produce more chocolate in Brazil.
The forests in Brazil are thinning out due to over farming and encroachment of the urban population. As a result, it has serious implications, as there are fewer trees absorbing carbon. Researchers and farmers are working together to find inventive ways to regenerate forests.
In Eastern Brazil, the thinned forests are replaced with newly planted cacao trees, the source of chocolate. The seeds inside the pods of cacao trees are roasted and fermented to make chocolate.
Newly planted trees and trees in the rain forest envelop cacao trees absorb massive amounts of carbon released into the atmosphere and keep it from getting into the air as carbon dioxide.
There used to be 330 million acres of rain forest in eastern Brazil (called the Mata Atlantica) but because of an increasing population, this forest has been reduced in size considerably; only 7 per cent of Mata Atlantica remains. The settlers and the local population began to destroy the forest for wood and construction, and clear large swaths of forests for farming purposes.
For every tree that was burned, the stored carbon is released into the air, contributing to global warming.
Dario Ahnert, a plant expert at the State University of Santa Cruz in Eastern Brazil, wants to stop this trend. Ahnert says if the farmers are given an incentive to plant cacao trees, it may help solve the problem.
The chocolate industry used to be big in Brazil, but because of plant disease and low prices, their industry suffered. Farmers instead turned to logging trees or burned forests for farming. But once the soil was used up, they abandoned the lands. Ahnert and others want these abandoned lands converted to farms by planting cacao and other trees to help preserve the forest.
One of the farmers, Joao Tavares, a friend of Ahnert, is living proof of this new strategy: Tavares, along with his family, have planted cacao trees on more than 2,200 acres. They employ a method called Cabruca Farming in which they cut down just enough tall rain forest trees and plant cacao trees underneath. The surrounding trees provide shade for the cacao trees (which helps them grow).
Tavares has been working hard on this for the past 10 years. He said he will help regenerate the forests in the Cabruca area, even if productivity is lower. They don’t produce as much as open farming, but they also face fewer disease problems associated with large-scale farming. Tavares instead focuses on preserving the green rain forests. And since there is a high demand for environmentally grown products, Tavares is able to get a premium price for his crops.
As NPR reports: Still, his friend, professor Ahnert, admits that cabruca is a tough sell: Farmers want more so-called modern approaches and quicker money. That's why Ahnert hopes that cabruca can become part of the carbon credit market. Farmers would then get money for preserving forest trees, as well as for their chocolate.
Ahnert hopes this strategy will help farmers and provide more incentive to make them use cabruca farming.
The World Agroforestry Center and the chocolate manufacturer Mars Inc. are also involved in greening the jungle. Howard Shapiro, Chief agronomist a Mars, hopes chocolate can bring back a little of the forest paradise that used to thrive in Brazil.
He is working with local scientists at Brazil’s national chocolate research institute. Since some of the lands have been overused, they want to enrich the soil first by growing melons and squashes. Then they plan to grow bananas for shade and plant cacao once the soil is enriched by nutrients from previously planted crops.
In previous tests, they planted rubber trees and heliconium flowers and they could see the soil had started to enrich. Some healthy cacao trees were growing already.
Shapiro thinks that by using abandoned land, they can enrich the soil within three years before replanting.
Thanks to Ahnert, Tavares and Shapiro, they are using chocolate to fight global warming.
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