In the 1990s, the cacao farmers of Brazil fell into a collective depression. Some hanged themselves, others dosed themselves with rat poison, still others walked around crying and saying they didn’t have anything to eat. The cacao pods on orchards throughout Bahia sat stagnant on their branches, rotting from the inside out. A coven of foreign, tightly gnarled stalks covered the trees themselves. The country had been the world’s third-largest producer of cocoa beans, but it had fallen from grace and even had to import beans from West Africa to satisfy its residents’ sweet tooth.
Juliana Pinheiro Aquino remembers it well. “My father was depressed. He was very sad,” she said.
About a century earlier, her great-grandmother’s brother, Firmino Alves, had founded the city of Itabuna and started the tradition of farming cacao in Bahia. “He called all his friends to help him,” Aquino said, describing the land rush of the late 1800s. Alves and his friends grew fabulously wealthy thanks to cacao and the mass of workers who helped them farm it. “Cacao was like the golden fruit,” Aquino said, “so everyone was raised with a lot of money.”
Aquino spent the first few years of her life on the Pinheiro family’s large-scale farm, living near her celebrity uncle who used his wealth to buy several Ford dealerships. Then, after a falling out, her father bought his own farm, Fazenda Santa Rita. When witches’ broom hit, Aquino said that within a couple of years, they had lost their entire fortune.
Her family wasn’t alone. More than 200,000 people, directly and indirectly, lost their jobs. Bahia experienced a mass exodus as people flocked from the farms to nearby cities, creating overpopulation and, with it, poverty and crime: Brazil now boasts 17 of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities, which historian Claudio Zumaeta linked directly to the collapse of cacao. Meanwhile, parts of the rainforest were wrecked, and Bahia’s biodiversity irreparably affected as farmers razed their trees to control the disease.
How could devastation happen on such a definitive level, especially in an area that had been farming cacao for more than 100 years? Two words: Moniliophthora perniciosa. The fungus causes a disease called witches’ broom that spells disaster for cacao farming, systematically transforming healthy trees into possessed messes with rotting pods and nasty-tasting beans.
The witch behind witches’ broom Expand
Witches’ broom is one of the most insidious diseases that can affect cacao trees, causing “yield reductions that range from 50 to 90%,” writes Lyndel W. Meinhardt et al., in a 2008 article in Molecular Plant Pathology called “Moniliophthora perniciosa, the causal agent of witches’ broom disease of cacao: What’s new from this old foe?”
Moniliophthora perniciosa is thought to have developed in the Amazon, like cacao. The fungus attacks trees in five phases: infection, green broom, necrosis, dry broom