Chocolate habitat

Chocolate to the rescue of Southern Bahia's unique and rich biodiversity

by Annick Sullivan

hile chocolate lovers are fretting at higher candy prices and falling cacao tree productivity, conservationists are looking forward to the remedy: a shift in cacao tree cultivation, from large plantations to small cocoa farms. Decades ago, the plantation system replaced rain forest with cacao trees, a transformation that ultimately lowered the productivity of the trees and reduced the forest. The preferred alternative is the traditional small farm system, called "cabruca" in southern Bahia, Brazil. This system leaves the original forest canopy intact to shade the cacao trees, promoting a more vigorous tree while preserving much of the local plant diversity. This production scheme is a win/win situation for small farmers as well as chocolate lovers.

"A return to the `cabruca' system would be great news for southern Bahia biodiversity," says Dr. Wm. Wayt Thomas, Associate Curator, Institute of Systematic Botany at The New York Botanical Garden, who is studying the plant diversity of the region. "My research shows that the coastal forests of southern Bahia, the fourth largest producer of cocoa beans, has one of the most diverse forests in the world, with some areas reaching 456 different tree species on a single hectare. In addition, 25 percent of the local flora is endemic to the region, which means it cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Our challenge now is to preserve this flora unique to the coastal forest of southern Bahia in the small remnants of the original forest still standing." It is estimated that 99.6 percent of the original forest has been destroyed since 1912.

Dr. Thomas is surveying the plant diversity of a 72,000 km2 area, the forests from southern Bahia south to Espirito Santo north of the Rio Doce. Dr. Thomas' research shows that almost half the species occurring in a forest in Bahia's cacao region are found only in the coastal forest and over 25 percent are found only in southern Bahia. The endemic flora documented by Dr. Thomas includes Ruellia affinis, Nematanthus corticola, and Calliandra bella. The documentation of this flora expands our plant genetic collection, our storehouse for new medicines and improved agricultural crops.

Dr. Thomas' study has promoted the creation of the Parque Estadual de Serra do Conduru, a new state park aimed at protecting the flora and fauna of the region, and has provided the necessary data for the mapping of priorities for conservation. This work in one of the most biodiverse regions of the world has a particular urgency: logging and land clearing continue at an alarming rate despite a federal decree banning logging in the coastal forest.

Dr. Thomas' research is part of a collaborative project with Dr. Andre Carvalho, Director of the Section of Environmental Resources of the Center for Cocoa Research (CEPEC), Itabuna, Bahia.