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Permaculture

Hoja Nueva’s Goal:

We practice sustainable agroforestry and cacao production on two of our sixty hectares that provides a framework for other farms in the area. The most desirable crop in the Piedras region is cacao, and its history of cultivation in the area is thousands of years old. Both Lucerna and the RioPiedras Agricultural Association grow cacao as well, and we help facilitate collaboration between our three groups and buyers in the United States. At the forefront of our efforts is the implementation of a sustainable cacao marketplace. We are working to create a sustainable, just system focused on the direct relationship between the farmer, buyer, and consumer, and one that will provide livable wages to those in participating communities.

Phases

One

Two

Our first official year (2016), the chacras have undergone construction and preparation for cacao. It is important to grow the cacao seedlings under the protection of a greenhouse before they are planted. When finally put into the ground, a mixture of 15-20% biochar is added within the soil to boost growth with the necessary nutrients.

Our “control” plot was randomly chosen by the people of Lucerna and was prepared and planted by the community in their traditional (unsustainable) manner. They call in the “bald” plot, and our eco-plot apparently has too much “hair” trees!! We like that analogy, so we call it the bald plot too.

Trees of various species, age, and size remain in our eco-plot to provide shade for the cacao as it grows. We have mixed fruit trees and leguminous (nitrogen-fixing) trees in specific test plots throughout each chacra, which will attract a diversity of wildlife and provide additional crops for consumption and sale. About 1,900 cacao seedlings were planted in each chacra before the last rainy season hit upon us.

During the second year and throughout the dry season, maintenance is extremely important. Seedlings must be mulched in order to protect their roots from the sun and the fruit trees must be checked for leaf cutter ant invasions. In a single day, these ants can remove every leaf from a fruit tree.

During the dry season, compost must be distributed to replenish soils after a long growing season and to replace erosion that has taken place in the rains. Weeds and “colonizer” species are controlled manually using machetes, and the cacao is checked on at least once a day in between these activities.

To the surprise of those living in the surrounding communities, the cacao in our eco-plot is surviving well and growing just as much as those in the bald plot. We’ve gotten comments about the green, healthy color of the cacao in the eco-plot, compared to the greenish yellow developing on the leaves of the seedlings in the bald plot. The only detriment to seedlings grown in the shade is that insects are more likely to get to them, which is when the fermented bio-pesticide is applied!

Three

Four

When the seedlings are a year old in the ground (and they’re getting there!), the cacao plants will be grafted. This is a process that combines two varieties of cacao in order to select for more desirable traits. Due to its cultural significance, those from Lucerna and RioPiedras plant cacao varieties from their native lands in VRAE. Even though these species favor sunlight more than others (i.e. bicolor), we will be of no help creating a sustainable future if we can’t find sustainable solutions to cultivate the crops that matter to them.

Our initial planting was a general, wild cacao species in order to ensure it has a strong grasp on Amazonian soil and resistance to certain pests. However, a domesticated cacao species will be grafted to provide fruit that will hang low and facilitate harvest. VRAE’s domesticated cacao species have won awards for the best cacao in Peru over many years, and now we are growing those same aromatic beans (yum!!).

The cacao trees should be fruiting in their second year- trees in nearby chacras have had up to 119 pods per tree at four-years-old!! During fruit production, harvest is very important as sometimes pods aren’t all ready for picking at the same time. Cacao pods are then collected and undergo fermentation within the first few hours of being removed from the trees. After three to ten days, depending on the interests of the buyer, fermentation is complete and the cocao seeds will undergo roasting.

Cocao beans have both a national and international market, as chocolate is historically rich and provides delicacies and health benefits all around the world. Culturally and economically significant crops like cacao and coffee have the ability to change the fate of current deforestation in the Amazon if grown in a sustainable way.

What is Cacao?

Cacao is from the family Malvaceae and genus Theobroma. Historically, it has grown wild and native to Central and South America for millions of years, and chocolate was prepared and consumed as a drink by indigenous cultures. After the Spanish invasions in South America, cacao was domestically grown for exportation to Europe in the 1600s and its cultivation has grown exponentially in popularity since.

Cacao grows best in hot conditions with a max average temperature of 30-32 degrees Celsius and a minimum average of 18-21 degrees Celsius. Average annual rainfall should be between 1,500mm and 2,000 mm and dry spells during which there is less than 100mm per month cannot exceed three months. Humidity should be at 100% most of the time, and can drop at night. For now, no diseases, like pod rot, have been introduced to our region.

Shade can drastically increase cacao productivity. Certain species grow best with an average of 30% canopy throughout the year; this also accounts for loss of leaf-cover during the dry season, so 40-50% is more appropriate during the wet season. The best shade trees are relatively short to facilitate pruning, wide to provide steady and reliable shade, and have small leaves so that raindrops are scattered and erosion is limited. The seedlings should be planted in the ground right before the rainy season, as they send out fine roots at the start of the rainy season rather than the end.

Cacao flowers continuously throughout the year and are pollinated by a small midge in the order Diptera. Once mature, each tree can produce over 70 pods of cacao each year- some up to 119! It takes two years for cacao to begin fruiting, but they can continue to do so for up to twenty-five years (usually less). After this period, the tree will still live but it will no longer fruit.

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