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Leaf 8: Cacao in the Reserva

A leaf from:

This Broken Land of Promise:

A Chronicle of Conservation in the Hispaniolan Border Country

Twenty-eight of our partner farmers recently planted a cacao grove in the Tree Bank’s Nature Reserve. The planting took place on June 8.

Cacao is the little, understory tree whose seeds are used to make cocoa and chocolate. Its scientific name is Theobroma cacao. “Theobroma” is Greek for “food of the gods.” A divine confection! “Cacao” is from the Nahuatl word for . . . cacao. Nahuatl was the language of the Aztecs.

Cacao is not native to Hispaniola. Its original range seems to have been part of the Yucatán peninsula and possibly farther south, here and there, through the lowland forests of Central America. So it’s not native — but it’s definitely not invasive. And in the context of agroforestry, it would be hard to dislike this tree. It’s easy on the soil, shade-tolerant, and it produces a valuable crop. Also, Matt tells me that Dominican cocoa is highly regarded by American cocoa aficionados.

Our Reserva is a 45-acre property that the Tree Bank bought in 2013, to protect the property’s forest and a stream that runs along the edge of that forest. That stream provides water to the community of Los Cerezos, where the Tree Bank is based. It also supplies the Tree Bank’s main nursery.

The Sangha funded the purchase of the Reserva, but it is actually owned by our local partner association, which manages it under an agreement with us.

About half of the Reserva is forested; the other half is sparse, low-quality pasture. Most of the pasture will be restored to forest, but some of it will be used to test various restoration or agricultural techniques.

The June planting is meant to restore a community benefit that disappeared from the Reserva a couple of years ago. The area now planted in cacao used to be a coffee grove; in most years, the beans from that grove brought in a few thousand pesos for the association’s meager general fund. But in 2014, a fungal epidemic killed all our coffee trees — not just in the Reserva but everywhere. (I wrote about the epidemic in my February 2016 blog entry, “Just over the Next Ridge.”) Once the coffee was gone, the association’s revenue stream ran dry. Eventually, the cacao should make it flow again.

The cacao grove covers a little over 1.5 acres. It lies near the stream that we’re protecting, so it’s moist, and it’s mostly forested. That’s important for the planting because, in our program area, cacao is not just shade-tolerant but shade-dependent: our periodic droughts would probably kill cacao growing in full sun.

A week before the planting, farmers cleared the area of its dense undergrowth. They chopped everything out with machetes — the small-holder’s principal land-management tool. “Some of it was native and some was exotic,” Cosme told to me. Cosme Quezada is one of the Tree Bank’s Dominican Co-Directors. “But it was all weeds and shrubs. We didn’t cut any trees.”

About 600 cacao trees were planted, along with 50 cabirma (Guarea guidonia), a native tree in the Mahogany family. Cabirma is very common in our area. It grows much taller than cacao and was added to extend the shade. Both the cacao and the cabirma were produced at the Tree Bank’s nurseries.

Cosme tells me that the Reserva’s cacao is of a strain that has performed well in other communities nearby. (We grow several strains, in case any one proves especially vulnerable to drought or disease.) The little trees should begin to bear in four or five years.

“You know that we’re going to want to buy the harvest, right?” I asked Cosme. Reminding people about our intentions is one of my habits. Apparently this can be irritating but I think that it’s useful.

“Don’t worry!” he said. “We want to sell you all the cocoa that we can produce.”

“This Broken Land of Promise” is my attempt to describe and interpret our Tree Bank Hispaniola program. I welcome your comments and questions. Please write me in the comment box below or email me at

About quotations: I try to quote people as accurately as I can, but conversations sometimes occur in distracting circumstances, and my memory is far from perfect. An additional complication when quoting our Dominican colleagues and friends: these people speak only Spanish, so our conversations with them are always in that language. For the most part, translating these exchanges is not difficult, but sometimes a literal rendering would make for poor English; in such cases, my aim is to capture the speaker’s tone and meaning, rather than his exact wording.

— Chris Bright

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Banner: Late October in a mixed stand of hickories, oaks, and American beech at Fountainhead Regional Park, on the northern shore of the Occoquan River, in Fairfax County, Virginia. Photo by Chris Bright. 

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