ZACATECOLUCA, El Salvador — The waist-high trees in Jose Francisco Merino Umaña’s field have sprouted branches and lush green leaves, but their modest size doesn’t convey the full value they hold to this farmer. In a year or two, they will extend much higher and start sprouting oval pods filled with the seeds that are eventually made into chocolate. These budding trees will soon give Merino Umaña the chance to break into the lucrative fine cacao market.
Cacao is not his only crop. Merino Umaña grows banana, papaya and mango trees to give shade to the young cacao plants. He knows how to tend the fruit trees. His father taught him how to do that years ago. But he’s not always sure how much water to give the cacao plants, or if they are getting enough shade. So he often looks for advice from Roberto Guatemala, the agricultural specialist for Alianza Cacao, a project that is helping Salvadoran farmers plant the crop in agroforestry systems with environmental and economic benefits.
“Sometimes there are things we don’t know since right now we are learning, so if I ever have a doubt, I just call Roberto,” said Merino Umaña, 51, who has lived most of his life in Zacatecoluca, a municipality about 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the capital, which sits in the Rio Lempa Valley at the foot of the San Vicente volcano.
Cacao is making a comeback in El Salvador. Centuries ago during the Mayan empire, cacao was one of the most important crops in Central America. It was so valued that it was even used as a currency. But over time, cacao was replaced by other cash crops that flourish in El Salvador’s climate, mainly coffee, sugarcane and cotton.
Remembering old ways
Cacao has become attractive to the Central American nation since 2013, when industry experts started to warn about a shortage in the global supply of cacao caused by decreasing production in African nations. This opened a space in the market for other producers to enter. El Salvador’s coffee farmers have been struggling for the past few years after a coffee rust plague killed their harvests, so they are looking for a new crop. But since cacao production has been lost in the country, farmers no longer know how to grow it.
A lack of knowledge makes it harder for small producers to grow cacao on their own, but this could actually benefit the environment. Jumping into the unknown makes these farmers more willing to implement agroforestry, a system of farming where complementary crops are grown together in the same space to promote more sustainable land use. Whereas other cacao-producing countries may have had difficulty getting local farmers to adopt agroforestry methods, El Salvador is using its new arrival on the cacao scene to its advantage.
“In other countries, it’s about bettering the practices. Here it’s about creating them,” said Jairo Andrade, director of Alianza Cacao.
Norberto Antonio Contreras, a 55-year-old farmer in Zacatecoluca, is one of the farmers who is embracing agroforestry with the help of Alianza Cacao, a project run by Catholic Relief Services with funding from USAID and the Howard Buffet Foundation. The initiative wants to plant 6,500 hectares (16,060 acres) of cacao in El Salvador by 2019, a goal that is 75 percent complete.
Along with his dietary staples of corn and beans, Contreras is growing lime, banana, mango and cashew trees in the agroforestry system that he has developed in his 2-hectare (4.9-acre) plot of land. The trees help cacao production since the plants need shade. At the same time, planting more trees promotes reforestation and biodiversity. Contreras will have a source of food and income for himself, his wife and three kids while he waits three to five years for the first cacao harvest.
“I saw the necessity to cultivate something new that would also give me an income. And I thought to myself, ‘What can I do? What crop can I plant?’” said Contreras. “So when I realized that cacao could be that option, I was attracted to the possibility.”
A changing environment and climate
But Contreras is not just worried about his own economic security. He has lived in Zacatecoluca most of his life and he has seen how the environment has been destroyed. Looking out from the edge of his small plantation, the horizon is flat and empty. Most of the trees have been cut down. The winds have grown stronger and they blow away the already eroded soil. The Lempa River doesn’t flow as strongly as it did in Contreras’s youth. The temperatures have turned from hot to scorching.
Agroforestry can help cool the climate. The shade means that farmers like Contreras are shielded from the sun as it beams down during the day. Planting more trees also means less carbon in the atmosphere, which keeps global temperatures down.
“Over the years, people here have been prioritizing the economic aspect of crops, and not the environmental aspect and this has caused a deterioration of the environment. But what cacao does is it gives us an alternative,” Contreras said. “We have to take care of the planet, because if we don’t we’ll destroy it. That’s how I was raised. I believe we are obligated to treat the planet well for the generations to come.”
Contreras’s embrace of agroforestry does have one major downside: less production. He can only produce 1 ton of cacao per hectare through agroforestry, rather than 3 tons per hectare in a monoculture system. But it has other tangible benefits. Since Contreras started his cacao-based agroforestry system about two years ago, he has noticed his small area of land coming to life. Birds are often chirping in the trees and squirrels scurry around, which he hasn’t seen many decades.
“As the world modernized, society started to destroy resources and kill animals in pursuit of money,” Contreras said. “We’re not great administrators of the Earth, but should be part of protecting of the environment.”
In 2013, around the time when cacao production was decreasing in Africa, government and civil society organizations in El Salvador started to develop a national cacao policy.
In this context, El Salvador started to position itself as a potential exporter of fine cacao. Given its size, the small Central American nation can’t compete with the producing giants in the region, such as Ecuador and Brazil. But a climate conducive to cacao means El Salvador stands a solid chance in the fine chocolate industry.
“If this new wave is going to make it to us, then we have to focus on quality,” said Rafael Alemán, director of the National Center of Farming and Foresting Technology, a government entity that is part of the Ministry of Agriculture and known by its Spanish acronym CENTA.
‘Most sustainable’ option
The problem is that El Salvador can’t afford any more damage to its ecosystems. The country has suffered devastating deforestation, losing 85 percent of its forest cover since the 1960s. This leads to other environmental problems, such as soil erosion, mudslides and forest fires. Because of its location, El Salvador’s agricultural sector is also at high risk of suffering from the impacts of climate change. In the next 30 years, temperatures will increase, droughts will last longer and extreme weather patterns will become more intense, all causing a decline in agricultural production.
“We are the second most deforested country in the region, so our way of producing has to be sustainable,” said Mario Antonio Alarcón, of the projects planning division of CENTA. “What’s more sustainable than producing cacao through an agroforestry system?”
CENTA, the National Cacao Committee and Alianza Cacao have outlined this approach to promoting cacao production, including agroforestry as a key pillar. They are currently waiting for approval from the minister of agriculture.
Some resistance has come from big players in the country’s coffee industry, who see the rise of cacao as a threat. Coffee production in El Salvador already took a huge hit from the coffee rust that led to a 70 percent decrease in production. This has caused economic hardship for farmers in a country where they were already struggling. In El Salvador, 41 percent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank.
“Farmers have to diversify. That’s something that is very clear to us in this country. If a farming family wants to improve their economic situation, they have to diversify the production on their plot of land,” said CENTA director Alemán. “[Cacao production] has to benefit both the farmers and the environment. We have to get the youth excited so that they will stay in the rural areas and produce, but there has to be a paradigm shift.”
Optimism and uncertainty
These changes won’t come without some obstacles. Despite strides for the country’s cacao industry, it still faces uncertainty.
Contreras, Merino Umaña and hundreds of other farmers will continue to receive support from Alianza Cacao through September 2019. After that, the continuation of funding has not been confirmed. The organization has requested additional funding from USAID to extend the program, but funding from the U.S. State Department is precarious under the Trump administration.
If funding does end, the organization will develop a transition plan so that farmers can continue to cultivate cacao. The cacao plants in Merino Umaña’s field are already growing. It’s a matter of ensuring he has enough knowledge of cacao cultivation to be able to continue.
“I do have doubts when I think about what I will do when the project ends. That would leave us in a tough spot,” said Merino Umaña. “If that happens, how am I going to continue? I would have to work much harder to be able to keep moving forward. It would be much more complicated.”
Merino Umaña has spent almost his whole life working the land with his father at Finca Umaña, or Umaña Plantation, named after the family. Planting cacao is one of the only ways that he has strayed from the traditions that his father taught him. Now, he’s just hoping that it pays off.
“I’ve already gotten into this and I’ve already planted quite a bit of cacao, so I have to continue full force ahead,” he said. “Now that it’s starting to bear fruit, I say to myself, ‘If it produces, even if it’s not a big quantity, but just a little, then maybe I’ll have a better means to survive.’ That’s the idea. Hopefully that’s how it will be.”