There’s already a fair number of technical guides to cacao cultivation floating about on the internet. Most of these are written by agro-economic institutions. There seems to be a scarcity of practical cacao cultivation information written by small-scale cacao growers who work within the permaculture philosophy. The material in this section aims to meet that need, at least partially. As previously stated more than once, I do not profess myself to be an expert in this field. As a grower of tropical fruit trees in general and cacao in particular, I have ten years of practical application under my belt, combined with a modicum of private study and plenty of trial and error. I wish to share a few things I’ve learned, to the extent that other kindred spirits out there may find it useful.
The cacao farming methods I employ in the Jama-Coaque Reserve have been strongly influenced by our neighbors in the adjacent community and other like-minded growers in places like Piedra de Plata. This form of cacao cultivation can best be described as “old-school campesino” style, which differs greatly from what I call the agro-economic style. The former method tends toward passive management of overgrown Nacional cacao trees that are often heavily shaded in a well-diversified polyculture of other fruit and timber trees, on hilly land, often without the use of irrigation, fertilizers, fungicides, and proper pruning methods; the only equipment required is a machete (seriously). The agro-economic method, on the other hand, employs more active management, which typically includes irrigation, synthetic fertilizers, chemical fungicides, as well as proper pruning methods, in plantations that tend toward monocultures on flat land with greater sun exposure.
The above distinctions are generalities, but they do paint an accurate picture of both ends of the spectrum in Ecuador. Clearly, there are pros and cons to each management style. Agro-economic methods tend to be more productive than the old-school campesino style, when using the strict yield-based accounting of the so-called “green revolution.” The downside to this approach is a loss in organoleptic complexity of the chocolate that is ultimately produced, not to mention environmental repercussions. The permaculture school of agroforestry more closely resembles the old-school campesino style, albeit with more strategic management and, often, with more informed tactics. This latter methodology is the most conservation-friendly and can also be sufficiently productive without sacrificing quality.
As our cacao cultivation objectives in the Jama-Coaque Reserve grow increasingly ambitious, we have begun to turn greater attention toward some of the more technically-astute practices of the agro-economic school, although we are still (for better or for worse) much more closely aligned with the permaculture/old-school method. One area in which we are happily inflexible is the matter of chemical inputs. Cultivation of all fruit trees in the Jama-Coaque Reserve—including cacao—has always been and always will be organic. All techniques discussed here conform to that standard of land stewardship.