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 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.
Witches' broom isn't native to Bahia. Rather, it grows more than 1,200 miles away, in the Amazonian rainforest. The first farmers to discover the disease in their trees encountered it in an unconventional way: "I found two cocoa trees with dry witches' broom tied onto them in the middle of their trunks," José Roberto Benjamin, a farm owner in Camacan, tells the camera in the documentary The Knot. Others discovered it the same way, as if, in an act of bioterrorism, the disease was introduced intentionally.
It turns out, it was.
The government investigated by evaluating the disease's entry points (the middle of farms rather than natural boundaries like rivers), and in a 1989 report called "The Report of the First Occurrence," it concluded that the outbreak of witches' broom "cannot be attributed to natural agents of dissemination. ... It makes it possible to believe that the pathogen was introduced by human hands." The trouble was, it didn't know whose.
Then, in 2006, Luiz Henrique Franco Timoteo, a supporter of the leftist Workers' Party (PT), confessed in a startling article in Veja magazine. The idea, he said, had come from Geraldo Simoes, a leading member of the PT who worked at the Comissao Executiva do Plano da Lavoura Cacaueira (CEPLAC), the governmental agricultural agency responsible for Brazil's cocoa-growing regions. Timoteo said that as part of a group of five PT militants (all of whom, besides for him, worked at CEPLAC), he helped introduce the disease to farms to wrest power from the wealthy landowners, destabilizing the area and allowing the oppressed lower classes to have their day.
After all, there was a lot of resentment about the wealth of the so-called cacao colonels -- the owners of large plantations -- compared to the lives of the farm workers. "Cacao elites used to say that the best doctor in the area was Varig and Vasp, which were the two airlines that would take you out of town," said Mary Ann Mahony, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University. "In the '80s there was no running water, no indoor plumbing, no electricity, nothing."
"Anytime we had health problems, we would go to Salvador or Sao Paulo," Aquino remembered about living in Itabuna, near the farm. When she was three years old, the family moved away from the area: It was the norm for farm owners to live in a bigger city while a manager and hired hands took care of the farm. Aquino moved into a "big apartment" with her grandmother in Salvador and attended private school there. Both she and her brother had cars, and her brother went to "the best university in Brazil for agronomic engineering" and then to California for an exchange program. "We didn't live in luxury, but we had everything we wanted," Aquino said.
Yet compared to most of the workers on her father's farm, she lived like a queen. "They were very poor," Aquino recalled. "They wouldn't know how to read and write." Mahony recalled seeing payroll sheets from the 1970s where workers "were signing with their fingerprint because they were illiterate."
Novelist Jorge Amado describes the scene aptly in his book The Golden Harvest. Ilheus is "a city of money and cabarets, of dauntless courage and dirty deals." And on the cacao plantations, "the cacao fields are the work, the home, the garden, the cinema, often the cemetery of the workers. The enormous feet of the hired hands look like roots, bearing no resemblance to anything else. The visgo of cacao sticks to their feet and never comes off, making them like the bark of the trunk, while malaria gives them the yellow color of nearly ripe pods, ready for picking."
"There were slaves that worked in cacao," Mahony summarized. "Most of the people who worked for [the cacao colonels] lived in illiteracy and darkness."
At that time, the government was a distant entity. "The infrastructure was very minimal at that point -- even roads were rough," recalled Tuta Aquino, Juliana's husband, whose family lost their farm. The plantation owners played the role of a makeshift government and provided social services that kept the area running. Like many plantation owners, Aquino's father tried to do right by his employees, building eight extra houses on the farm for workers and founding a school on the property in 1987 that is still in session to this day. "It's not related to being wealthy," Aquino said about the power structure of old Bahia, and the culpability of the elites as a class. "It's related to being bad or not. The employer had the right to take from the employee clothes, food, house," Aquino recalled. "The minimum wage was so little." Many employers took advantage of this system.
"We arrived, entered, tied the infected branch to the trunk of the cocoa and went away. ... The wind took care of the rest."
So it didn't seem so far-fetched that left-wing activists would try to change the social structure.
Timoteo told Veja and The Knot that, between 1989 and 1992, he repeatedly brought diseased branches from the Amazonian rainforest to Bahia by bus and gave the material to another conspirator to tie to healthy trees in the area. Because they worked for CEPLAC, they were able to easily enter any farm by saying they were doing fieldwork. They first targeted "politically conservative cocoa producing [counties]," explains a 2013 study from Geoforum called "Agro-terrorism? The causes and consequences of the appearance of witches' broom disease in cocoa plantations of southern Bahia, Brazil." The disease then spread along the BR-101 highway, decimating farms along the way. "We arrived, entered, tied the infected branch to the trunk of the cocoa and went away," Timoteo told Veja. "The wind took care of the rest."
But their Robin Hood plan went awry, creating mass devastation.
CEPLAC has consistently denied any involvement with the matter. Uilson Lopes, a specialist in quantitative genetics and cacao breeding at CEPLAC, said that the agency was "badly affected" by the outbreak and has experienced "much worse ... institutional instability" in the years since witches' broom was introduced.
"CEPLAC had no interest [in] the disease being introduced in the region," he said. "In the decade before the WB, we were starting science projects (as for example the development of clones) that had the power to do a big impact on the cacao science. Suddenly, we had to stop all of them to focus on witches' broom. ... As a scientist, working in cacao in the last 30 years, I can say: it is much easy to work with cacao research (make progress and be scientifically recognized) and rural extension without WB."
In the meantime, all of Timoteo's accused collaborators have become government officials: In 1992, Simoes was elected the mayor of the city of Itabuna; he was elected again in 2000 and has served in other government positions as well. Everyone Timoteo implicated has denied his confession to Veja. "I've never seen that madman," Simoes told the magazine. (Engadget was not able to reach Timoteo, but when we reached out to Simoes online, he responded to our questions with a thumbs-up emoji.)
Some people don't believe Timoteo's story. "It's as much a possibility that it was done by farmers who were already infected," said Mahony. At the time some suspected it could have been the governments of Ghana or the Ivory Coast (which together produce 70 percent of the world's cocoa) trying to sabotage Brazil's economy. In 2006, a study published in Mycological Research called "Genetic variability and chromosome-length polymorphisms of the witches' broom pathogen Crinepellis perniciosa from various plant hosts in South America" determined that the witches' broom in Bahia was composed of only "two main genotypes." Some say that if Timoteo's group had repeatedly introduced infected branches over several years, there would be more genetic variability in the area. Since there are only two genotypes, they say, this proves that Timoteo's story cannot be true. Others use that information to demonstrate that there were two insertion points, proving Timoteo's tale.
At the end of the day, the story of witches' broom –- and why someone would want to plant it –- is considered common knowledge by most everyone in Brazil. "From the very start, people knew that it was not natural," said Rogerio Kamei, whose family lost their farm.
Uilson Lopes, CEPLAC
Since 1957, CEPLAC's entire mission has been to "promote the competitiveness and sustainability of the agricultural, agroforestry and agro-industrial segments for the development of the cocoa-producing regions." Surely it could help control this manmade natural disaster?
It was certainly set up to do so. Since 1940, it had been illegal to transfer botanical material to Bahia. For 18 years, CEPLAC had maintained inspection offices at airports and border stations to keep witches' broom from leaving the Brazilian rainforest. It had even instituted the Witches' Broom Control Campaign, where CEPLAC employees would inspect travelers' bags to make sure they didn't contain infected material, in order to keep everything away from Bahia and Espirito Santo.
CEPLAC first responded by burning an infected farm. But the disease spread, and for a while, the government didn't intervene. In 1995 CEPLAC finally enacted the Recovery Plan for Cocoa Farming to control the disease, and it even vowed to increase productivity by about 2,200 pounds per hectare. The first steps involved spreading products like copper and Agent Orange, an herbicide associated with the Vietnam War. Over several years CEPLAC developed "a biological control agent (a fungus that competes with the WB fungus)," Lopes said, "culminating with a commercial product" called Tricovab. With partners at home and abroad, it also sequenced Moniliophthora perniciosa's DNA, "in the hope that knowledge could help us to control the disease."
CEPLAC also first recommended that plantation owners prune extensively, cutting down infected trees and lowering the tree crown overall. This has had disastrous long-term effects. For 250 years, Brazil's forests had created what's called a cabruca system, "where cocoa is grown under the shadow of large trees," explained Cristiano Villela Dias, the scientific director of Centro de Inovacao do Cacau in Bahia. "It is extremely positive from the point of view of conservation of natural resources, as it helps to preserve animals and plants, in addition to preserving water resources, such as rivers and springs. It was the only production model presented at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio + 20, as truly sustainable."
In other words, messing with it was a bad idea. Lowering the tree crown was "the huge human action that generated this extraordinary spread of the fungus throughout the region, in such a short period of time," said Goncalo Pereira, a biology professor at the University of Campinas, in The Knot.
CEPLAC has also spent a lot of its time identifying cacao varieties that are resistant to witches' broom and getting that information to plantation owners. Unfortunately, the first varieties that it urged owners to clone on their land didn't prevent the disease from spreading. Worse, because of the cacao varieties selected, the trees did not grow cacao pods. No pods, no beans. No beans, no money.
Tuta said his father "was one of the pioneers in trying to use the technology" that CEPLAC recommended, and it "failed completely. ... You wait two or three years until you see these trees grow, and there aren't any pods." By the mid to late 1990s, his father had to lay off workers. "From 30 people, he went down to 10, then six," and then just one or two, until finally "he ended up selling his farm." Now his father works in the technology sector. Even Aquino's father's family, the historic Pinheiros, don't farm cacao. They grow rubber trees.
Meanwhile, a generation of Brazilians is in debt. Like many plantation owners, Aquino's father took out a loan to finance CEPLAC's recommendations. To get the loan, owners had to follow CEPLAC's advice to a T. When one recommendation didn't work, there was always another, with another loan. In May 2009 CEPLAC published a technical note recommending "treating the debts that were originated by the Program for the Recuperation of the Cacao Farming in Bahia with similar standards foreseen in the Fund for Agriculture Defense for catastrophic events" –- in other words, remunerating the debts. But farmers are still on the hook to the banks, though a new round of class-action lawsuits has given many hope.
"Science usually does not work in the speed required by society," said Lopes succinctly, in response to CEPLAC's treatment of the disease, "because there is no magic solution for complex problems."
By 2010, CEPLAC had found some varieties that worked. Today it recommends 12 clones, including CCN-51, which is infamous for its bad taste. "It has very dirty and undesirable flavor attributes that are different from what you find in fine-flavor cocoa and even bulk cocoa," Darin Sukha, a research fellow and food technologist at the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, told me in an article for Slate. "The resistance sources of those clones come from plants originally found in the wild," Lopes explained, especially a plant called Scavina-6 "found originally in Peru" around 1940.