You might hear many different words describing chocolate. The Latin name for cacao is Theobroma, which means 'food of the gods.' Anyone who has tasted cocoa knows why this name is so appropriate. Cocoa is the processed product derived from the beans of the cacao plant. The word "chocolate" is from the Aztec word, "xocolatl," which means "bitter water." The cacao tree is an evergreen that grows to about 15 to 25 feet. The fruits and flowers of the cacao tree grow directly from its trunk. The tree grows an oblong fruit commonly called a pod, which can be four to 12 inches long. When the pod is young it is green in color, and can turn yellow, red or purple when ripe. Each pod contains 20 to 60 reddish-brown cocoa beans up to an inch long, which are usually arranged in five rows surrounded by a sugary pulp. Pods are usually harvested at the end of the wet, or rainy, season. It takes seven to 14 pods to produce one pound of dry cocoa beans.
Cacao trees usually grow below altitudes of 1,000 feet in areas that receive about 4 inches of rain per month. They cannot survive in very dry weather and thrive in climates with high humidity and rainfall. These plants are shade-tolerant and thrive in moist, nutrient-rich, well-drained, deep soils. Because cacao trees grow well in the shade, the rainforest does not need to be cut down in order to grow cocoa. While cocoa likely originated in the lowland rainforests of the Amazon River basins of South America, it is now found as far north as the south of Mexico. The end product of cocoa beans -- chocolate -- can be found in stores all over the world!
Cocoa has been a food for humans since as far back as 600 to 200 B.C. when the first hot chocolate drink was made from mashed cocoa seeds. Cocoa is now a major cultivated food crop. Because chocolate is in such high demand throughout the world today, it is important that cacao trees be grown and harvested sustainably- in a way that is safe for wildlife, people and the environment. The Rainforest Alliance is working with cocoa farmers and a conservation group in Ecuador called Conservación y Desarollo (Conservation & Development) to help the local cocoa farmers shift from growing cocoa on full-sun, high input farms to using shade-covered and more sustainable farms. This has dramatically increased the quality of their cocoa beans and in turn helped these farmers earn better prices for their cocoa. In this way, the people, the environment, and the animals that live in the shade trees of these farms all benefit from sustainable practices.
Jukofsky, Diane. Encyclopedia of Rainforests. Connecticut: Oryx Press, 2002.
Photo by Charlie Watson