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.