Saturday, August 4, 2018

"Chocolate, bioterrorism and the birth of Brazilian funk"

“…For, after all, I had been into cocoa a bit myself. That was back when The Great Winfield had discovered cocoa trading. Occasionally in those more leisured days I would sit with him lazily watching stocks move, like two sheriffs in a rowboat watching catfish in the Tennessee River….”
-'Adam Smith', Supermoney
From engadget:
Is a plot to topple the aristocracy to blame for the collapse of cacao in Brazil? 
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."...