Chontalpa, one of the five regions in the Mexican state of Tabasco, is famous for its cacao production. In this area of the country extending along the Tehuantepec isthmus, cultivation and consumption of cacao have been an integral part of people’s lives since the time of the Olmec civilization. Professor Michael D. Coe, a leading scholar of Pre-Colombian Anthropology, stated that, “the first human in history to taste chocolate was probably an Olmec living 3000 years ago in the swampy jungles of southeastern Mexico.”
The word cacao derives from kakaw, a term used by various groups of native Mexican Indians and borrowed by the Olmec Mixe-Zoquean language. Cacao has played a central role in the economy and traditions of this area ever since then. Latest estimates show that the State of Tabasco is the main producer of cacao in Mexico: 67% of its area is dedicated to the crop and the state accounts for about 80% of total Mexican production. The top-producing region in Tabasco is Chontalpa, an area with particularly favorable growing conditions and the recognized origin of the Criolla variety. The main varieties now grown in Chontalpa are Forastero (also called locally Calabacillo), Trinitario (or Puntudo) and, to a very limited extent, Criollo. The cacao production season in Chontalpa extends from October to April-May, the months when the prevailing hot and humid climate with abundant rainfall, gives way to a relatively dry period. The areas cultivated for cacao provide additional resources for producers: tall fruit trees (such as coconut, avocado, mango, citron or mamey) rise above the cacao trees, providing the necessary shade, while banana, papaya, pumpkins and peppers are grown underneath.
Though cacao plays a central role in the lives of small agricultural producers in Chontalpa, they face constant difficulties. Lack of access to credit, and the distance from markets willing to pay a premium for quality, means that they cannot get technical assistance, deal with hygiene issues, process the cacao using proper equipment and methods or supply a semi-processed product guaranteeing satisfactory returns. The local market is the only market that producers can access and intermediaries impose their own conditions.
Moreover, between October and November 2007, the states of Tabasco and Chiapas were devastated by terrible floods: 70% of Tabasco was covered with water. The most serious damage was to the agricultural sector, with 160,000 hectares of cultivated land lost from a total of 240,000. The flooding exacerbated an already critical situation for cacao producers, worsening the effect of frosty pod rot (moniliasis), a fungal disease which has in recent years halved plant productivity and continues to this day to afflict producers.
José María Morelos y Pavón (C-11), Benito Juárez García (C-21) and José María Pino Suarez (C-22), Cárdenas municipality, Plátano y Cacao community, Centro municipality, Miahuatlán community, Cunduacán municipality, Tabasco.
ATCO (Asesoría Técnica en Cultivos Orgánicos)
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Alma Rosa Garcés Medina
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