Nature's Trick Is No Treat for a City That Put Flavor in Chocolate Bars

As chocolate sales soar at Halloween, a Brazilian city tries to recover from its fall as a world source of cacao.

Imagine a Halloween without any chocolate bars and you can imagine the horror of a trick played by Mother Nature on Ilhus, a city made famous for producing much of the world's cacao, the essence of chocolate.

Ilhus in the northeast Brazilian state of Bahia was once a wealthy town. Its 1,000 plantations of cacao trees employed 3 million people and created a class of millionaire landowners whose lifestyles were the stuff of novels and film. The dried seeds of the yellow cacao fruit, shipped to Europe and the US, were like endless veins of gold.

As cotton was to the American South, rain-forest cacao was to southern Bahia.

A blight in late 1980s

That was before a drought in the late 1980s helped spread a blight called "witch's broom" that rotted 90 percent of the crops. Economic downturns in Brazil and elsewhere didn't help. The market price for cacao dropped from $4,500 to $500 a ton. Brazil dropped from second to eighth place among world cacao producers. "Now we're even importing cacao pulp from abroad" for local use in ice cream, jam, and drinks, says Jose Antonio Correira, director of the rural union in Ilhus.

Talk about identity crisis. Since the 1930s, southern Bahia's rich cacao culture fed the novels of Brazil's most famous writer, Jorge Amado, born on his family's cacao plantation.

But now the glory days are over and most of the landowners, or "colonels," have abandoned their farms. Some of the unemployed workers can be seen walking the highways looking for day jobs, big knives hanging by their sides.

Teresa Maria Silveira Barros is one of five former cacao producers who turned their antique town houses and farms into hotels. Her Bed-and-Breakfast of the Colonels houses some of the 300,000 tourists who come every year to taste Ilhus's traditional cacao culture. The biggest plantations were like small towns, with a church, barber, cinema, and supermarket. "People come looking for the romance of that era. They ask me if my father killed anyone, that sort of thing," Ms. Barros jokes. "I'm not expecting cacao to return, but it's nice to remember how it was."

Other landowners started clear-cutting the protected rain forest on their land and selling the wood for cash.

"This was a fantasy island, an illusion. Whoever had cacao was a king," says a former colonel, Aleomar Leal, recalling when he earned an easy $10 million a year on plantation inherited from his grandfather. "When it all ended, we suffered a lot. We had never worked jobs before." He now works a government job while raising milk cows on his 1,000-acre farm.

Single-crop dependence

Despite the obvious dangers of dependence on a single crop, the federal government plans to invest $300 million to help the cacao industry recover, declaring cacao the only crop appropriate for the region's climate, topography, and infrastructure. It's also the most environmentally sound, since cacao trees grow best under rain-forest covering. The money would pay to plant blight-resistant cacao trees and set up irrigation.

But Ilhus is turning to other business prospects. Mayor Jabes Ribeiro says the city's growing tourism and computer industries have absorbed about 15 percent of the lost jobs. The government is putting $1 billion into infrastructure, such as a new airport.

"At the end of this turnaround we'll be better off than we were during the cacao boom," Mr. Ribeiro says. About 10 percent of producers are trying alternative crops such as palm oil and bananas.

"Cacao is in extinction. There's no way to go back," Mr. Leal says.

But one of the few producers continuing with cacao disagrees.

Fernando Botelho Lima is counting on updated cultivation methods such as cloning, grafting, and irrigation. Industry experts say successful plantations will be small, forested, and well-tended like Mr. Botelho's.

The Botelhos say they lost almost everything during the crisis, but in hindsight they welcome the change. They had to give up $50,000 European vacations, property in Ilhus, an apartment in Rio, and three of their five farms.

The experience turned them into real farmers and prompted them to invite their laborers to become "partners" and keep 50 percent of the profits.

"When I started in the cacao business thirty years ago, I didn't prepare the plants, figure things out," Botelho says, pulling out a laptop computer on which he meticulously tracks every tree's progress. "Cacao is still big business, but you just have to change your way of doing things."

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