29/06/22 |   Research, Development and Innovation  Plant production

Study shows sustainable cocoa expansion in the Amazon region

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Photo: Adriano Venturieri

Adriano Venturieri - Sustainable cocoa expansion in the Amazon region combines job and income generation with forest preservation and the recovery of degraded areas

Sustainable cocoa expansion in the Amazon region combines job and income generation with forest preservation and the recovery of degraded areas

  • Mapping by Embrapa and partners shows that cocoa cultivation in the Amazon region is mostly performed by family farmers in agroforestry systems (AFS).
  • The sustainable expansion of the crop - 70% in degraded areas - combines wealth generation with forest conservation.
  • Today Pará is Brazil's top producing state, as it accounts for more than half of the country's total (R$1.8 of R$3.5 billion in gross production).
  • The mapping crossed satellite images, data from the Rural Environmental Registry and from field research.
  • The study, which involved ten top towns in terms of cocoa production in Pará, also showed a reduction in deforestation and forest fires.


Study by Embrapa and partner institutions proved that the sustainable expansion of cocoa has been extremely beneficial for the Amazon region by combining job and income generation with forest conservation. While Pará today is the largest national producer of this fruit, with over 50% of the total national income from the fruit –  R$ 1.8 billion of 3.5 billion –, 70% of the crop is cultivated in degraded areas, especially by family farmers and in agroforestry systems. That results in the recovery of such areas, most of which had been converted into pastures, with subsequent reduction in forest fires and in deforestation in the region.

The study, entitled "The sustainable expansion of cocoa crop in the State of Pará, Brazil and its contribution to altered areas recovery and fire reduction" was published this week in the Journal of Geographic Information System. It shows a detailed description of the evolution of cocoa plantations in terms of their historical expansion, practices in rural properties, land use transitions and fire regimes.

According to the main author, the researcher Adriano Venturieri, from Embrapa Eastern Amazon, the area with cocoa in Pará state has been growing in recent years, especially in the region of the Transamazônica highway. There is, however, a difficulty in mapping such expansion in light of the diversity of the production systems that involve cocoa cropping in the region.

"Mapping and monitoring cocoa plantations using optical sensor images was a challenge given their botanical and arboreal characteristics that can be confused with thickets (secondary regrowth) and other forest vegetation, since cocoa is normally cultivated in native forest understories, in their shade", the researcher reports. 

"For that purpose, it was necessary to cross satellite images obtained from the Brazilian Institute of Space Research (Inpe, from the acronym in Portuguese) and from the Amazon Land Use Mapping (TerraClass) project with data from the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR), and then go the fields and check with local growers and technicians the accurate location of the cocoa within the forest areas", Venturieri adds.

According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), Brazil produced 270,000 tons of cocoa beans (Theobroma cacao) in 2020/2021. The North of the country produced 150,000 tons, and Pará state was responsible for 96% of the regional total. The Northern Brazilian state is the largest domestic producer of the fruit, moving R$ 1.8 billion of the R$3.5 billion cocoa yielded in the country in 2020.

Cocoa enriches the forest

The study monitored and mapped areas located in the ten municipalities with the highest cocoa production in Pará and corresponds to the regions of the Transamazônica highway, Southeast Pará, Northeast Pará and Lower Tocantins, using participatory methodologies in local communities.

It analyzed data from TerraClass – a program jointly develoed by Embrapa and the National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) that classifies land use changes in the Amazon region  – regarding the period from 2004 to 2014, and satellite images by Prodes, which annually monitors deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon territory. "Such images were crossed with information from CAR and validated in the field with farmers in the different cocoa areas in the state, and then it was possible to obtain cocoa crop image patterns", explains Inpe's researcher Marcos Adami, one of the authors of the study.

Through modeling and the image patterns established by the analysis, the study initially pointed to the existence of 70,000 hectares of cocoa (by 2019) in 26 towns in Pará. As the monitoring is continuous and permanent, new data analyzed after the publication of the study already points to 90,000 hectares up to 2021. "Our goal is in to become closer and closet to the official numbers, but we know the difficulties to reach them" , Venturieri asserts. Funcacau funded the work of identifying cocoa farms in the state.

"It was also possible to verify that approximately 21,000 hectares are still being mappead as forests by Inpe (Prodes), in spite of the fact our field data identified cocoa plantations that are shaded by vegetation in those areas", Adami reports. The researcher underscores that nearly 88.7% (52,778 hectares) of the planted cocoa area had already been deforested by the year 2008, the threshold of deforestation defined by the Brazilian Forest Code.

"This shows us that cocoa has not primarily been advancing into new forest areas. It is occupying previously degraded areas and forest understories that had not been fully deforested", Venturieri adds.

In the areas with thickets and partially explored forests, the trees provide shade to cocoa plantations, which is characteristic of the cultivation in the Amazon region. "The difference between Amazonian cocoa and cocoa from other regions of Brazil is that it is planted in the shade and not in the full sun. It is interesting to realize that the presence of cocoa in those areas enriches the presence of the forest by maintaining forest fragments and preventing deforestation", the researcher affirms.


Perennial agriculture instead of pastures

Another study finding was a trend to convert pastures into cocoa plantations, which shows cocoa farming in the Amazon has grown as an activity that helps the recovery of degraded areas.

An example of that is the story of local cocoa grower Ribamar Nóbrega, based in São Francisco do Pará, Northeast Pará. His brother and him changed a 35 year-old pasture of the property into an Agroforestry System (AFS). “My brother and I are part of the second generation of the family involved with the agricultural sector. Our father was a cattle farmer, but we wanted a perennial activity and we found it in the AFS with açaí, cocoa and banana", the farmer recounts.

It currently has 25 hectares in production with the three crops and there are another 20 hectares at an implementation stage. "We chose cocoa because it is a perennial activity and also because it is a fruit tree that grows well in our region. Moreover, cocoa with açaí and banana are activities that supplement each other and have good profitability", Ribamar explains.

For Venturieri, there is no point in thinking about producing cocoa in the Amazon without integrated production with other crops. “Pará already has enough cleared area for a new mindset on agriculture in the state. We have to move from a horizontal agriculture into a vertical production model, and agroforestry systems with their gradient of crops in the same space are indispensable for that”, he asserts.

Video shows how cocoa expansion helps the forest

A passion that combines income with environmental awareness

On top of the plantation, fermentation and drying to sell the beans, Ribamar's family also makes chocolate and other products with the cocoa they cultivate in the property. Márcia Nóbrega, his wife, details: “We produce chocolate, nibs, dragées, small bars, always adding value and bringing 'something more' to the beans”.

The couple's production is divided between bulk seeds, which are commodities destined to the industry, and selected seeds for the production of fine chocolates that fill market niches. “Working with cocoa is a passion, it is not just producing and selling the beans, but it is also about seeing what people can make with them. We have to pass on to society that we can make wonderful products from this fruit, such as nectar, liqueur, jams, chocolate bars with different intensities and flavors, and so on”, Márcia explains.

The challenges, according to Ribamar Nóbrega, are still big, “since it requires more technical follow-up until the point of economic value creation in the very own chocolate production chain”, he reports. But his family and him would not change from cocoa in agroforestry systems to another activity. “Cocoa has got everything to do with our generation and the next ones. It is a native plant of the region, which has a longer service life, absorbs carbon from the atmosphere, and conserves the climate and the environment. It is a sustainable long-term activity. This motivates us enough”, he concludes.

Less forest fires and more environmental protection

In the 90,000 hectares mapped by the study, the researchers found that practically 100% are not in protected areas. "In fact, only 0.46% of the areas with cocoa are in environmental protection areas (APAs, from the acronym in Portuguese), where there is legislation allowing the development of production activities", Venturieri explains.

These areas with cocoa, according to researcher, are statistically smaller than the areas without cocoa, which demonstrates a characteristic of the activity in the Amazon region: family farming. "We have proved what many farmers would tell us in the mapping: that cocoa is produced in smaller areas, that the cultivation does not deforest and that it reduces the use of slash and burn", Venturieri states.

The fact that cocoa, which is a perennial crop, is being mainly associated with agroforestry systems and with thickets and partially explored forests backs the assertion that there is a drastic reduction in the use of slash and burn to prepare the areas. 

“Fire is generally used to clear pastures, and as those areas are converted into perennial agriculture, its use is also reduced and even replaced by other kinds of area preparation, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions and generating higher protection to soil and water”, Venturieri explains.

Ana Laura Lima (MTb 1.268/PA)
Embrapa Eastern Amazon

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Translation: Mariana Medeiros (13044/DF)
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