By Jerry Toth
At the turn of the previous century, Ecuador’s famed heirloom cacao variety ("Ancient Nacional") was the most cherished in the world. At the turn of the most recent century, it was believed to be extinct. In 2013, To’ak found a valley where some of these trees still survived.
In the years that followed, To’ak and its rainforest conservation partner Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) embarked on a project to pull this legendary cacao variety back from the brink of extinction.
I first wrote about this project in 2018, in the (rather long-winded) article called The Noah's Ark of Ancient Nacional Cacao. This current article is meant to serve as the update. The story is told in the format of a timeline.
Photo Caption: Don Arnoldo standing in front of one of his old-growth cacao trees - Piedra de Plata, Ecuador.
Ecuador’s leading agricultural research institute, INIAP, collected DNA samples from 11,000 cacao trees throughout Ecuador. Only six of these trees (out of 11,000 samples!) proved to be 100% pure Nacional, also known as "Ancient Nacional." That’s a mere 0.05% of the cacao trees that were surveyed.
Photo Caption: On the hunt for pure Nacional. Carl Schweizer in Piedra de Plata, 2013.
- To’ak was born.
- We started exploring various valleys throughout Ecuador in pursuit of old-growth cacao trees. In one of these valleys, we found cacao trees estimated to be 100-120 years old, that matched all of the morphological characteristics of Ancient Nacional cacao. The name of this valley is Piedra de Plata. Located located deep in the wooded hillsides of the province of Manabí, it was not connected to the rest of the country by road until the 1990s.
Photo Caption: A good (but incomplete) group shot of the cacao growers from Piedra de Plata and To'ak, 2013.
To’ak sent preliminary leaf samples of a few of the trees from Piedra de Plata to the USDA Genetic Lab for DNA analysis.
- The USDA Genetic lab confirmed the presence of 100% pure Nacional cacao among the samples tested, referring to this variety as “Ancient Nacional.”
- The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) sponsored a second round of DNA analysis of cacao trees in Piedra de Plata. Samples were collected by To’ak, in partnership with Ing. Freddy Amores from INIAP, and analyzed by the USDA Genetic Lab.
Photo caption: "Lucky number 13" is a cacao tree sampled in the first round of DNA analysis and confirmed to be 100% pure Nacional.
- The results of the second round of genetic analysis were released in February. Out of a broad sampling of 47 cacao trees in Piedra de Plata, in which trees of all ages and characteristics were analyzed, we identified sixteen trees that we believed could be pure Nacional. Among these sixteen trees, nine of them were confirmed to be 100% pure Nacional.
- To’ak launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to develop a “genetic bank” of pure Nacional cacao trees in partnership with TMA, to be planted in the nearby Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve (JCR).
Photo Caption: Aerial shot of the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve, which now serves as home to the largest collection of DNA-verified Ancient Nacional cacao trees in Ecuador.
- To’ak worked with the local cacao growers of Piedra de Plata along with cacao specialists from the provincial polytechnic university ESPAM, under the guidance of Ing. Paul Cedeño, to reproduce the Ancient Nacional trees. Budwood was collected from each of the nine DNA-verified trees in Piedra de Plata and grafted onto hundreds of young seedlings (i.e., “rootstock”). This is the same process used to reproduce grape vines of a specific variety for wine production.
- Meanwhile, TMA rehabilitated an abandoned patch of agroforestry land in JCR to serve as a small cacao parcel where these precious seedlings could be planted and cultivated.
Photo Caption: Servio Pachard tending to the newly-grafted seedlings in the nursery.
- In March of 2018, a total of 189 successfully-grafted “Ancient Nacional” seedlings were planted in the micro-parcel in JCR. Specifically, we planted twenty-one individual seedlings grafted from each of the nine DNA-verified mother trees (189 in total). We grandly referred to this parcel as “the Noah’s Arc of Ancient Nacional Cacao.” In practice, we simply call it the “Genetic Bank.”
- In April of 2018, the baby seedlings from the Genetic Bank got their first taste of media notoriety. A film crew from National Geographic’s “Explorer” series visited the Genetic Bank as part of a feature story about the future of the world's cacao supply.
Photo Caption: Jerry Toth on planting day, March 2018.
- The weather this year was particularly propitious for these young cacao seedlings. The trees grew from knee-high to head-high, and generally proved themselves to be quite happy and healthy. A few plants even started flowering at the end of the year.
- In December of 2019, we took budwood from the healthiest trees in the Genetic Bank and grafted them onto another batch of cacao seedlings – in effect, creating the next generation of pure Nacional trees from this genetic line.
Photo Caption: Edilberto Marquez and Sixto Murillo, two of the key TMA team members in the Jama-Coaque Reserve who are responsible for keeping these pure Nacional cacao trees alive and well.
- In February of 2020, the next generation of pure Nacional cacao seedlings were planted in another micro-parcel of JCR and also distributed to several local cacao growers, as part of a pilot project.
- In September of 2020, we harvested the first cacao pod from the Genetic Bank and promptly planted each of the seeds in JCR's tree nursery.
Photo Caption: Dany Murillo, the agroforestry field manager of the Jama-Coaque Reserve and a young leader in his community, standing next to a two-year-old Ancient Nacional cacao seedling in the Genetic Bank, March 2020.
- In February of 2021, we planted the seedlings born from the very first cacao pod harvested in the Genetic Bank. They officially represent the next generation of an ancient cacao variety.
- By the end of 2020, the trees in the Genetic Bank should be able to yield enough budwood to reproduce an additional 2,000-3,000 pure Nacional seedlings, pending funding for this project.
Outlook for the Future
From 2021 and onward, the trees of the Genetic Bank should be able to yield enough budwood to reproduce up to 5,000 pure Nacional cacao seedlings each year, as part of a regional agroforestry/conservation project implemented by Third Millennium Alliance...pending funding.
The idea is to distribute these seedlings to cacao growers in small agricultural communities in the province of Manabí, to serve as an alternative to logging, cattle-ranching, and slash-and-burn agriculture. A main component of the project is to help these growers establish direct-trade relationships with bean-to-bar chocolate makers who are interested in sourcing extremely high-quality cacao, at prices that accurately reflect the quality and conservation value it represents.
We believe this initiative will increase farmer revenues and ultimately encourage more people to practice sustainable agroforestry. This, in turn, would help stem the tide of deforestation in the region. And in the process, a legendary cacao variety will gain new life.
Under the guidance of Third Millennium Alliance, our vision is to help transform the deforested hillsides of the province of Manabí into the Bordeaux of the cacao-growing world - a land with a thriving and sustainable economy in harmony with the last remnants of native forest that still stand.
Photo Caption: Don Lupercio on harvest day - helping usher in a new generation of the art and honorable livelihood of cacao farming in Manabi.