The Municipality of San Antonio Suchitepéquez was one of the largest cocoa producers in Guatemala during the first half of the 20th century.
In recent years, the patchwork expanses of smallholder cacao plantations - cultivating a plant indigenous to Central America - have been replaced by industrial monocultures of introduced crops such as sugar cane and rubber, interspersed with large swathes of cattle rangeland.
These changes have serious consequences for the natural ecosystems of the region.
Chocolate to Save an Ecosystem
As climate change impacts Guatemala with changing variability in intensity and frequency of precipitation patterns, the primary threats are floods and landslides. This makes land usage an even more urgent concern. Luckily, the reintroduction of cocoa production can address both economic and environmental problems simultaneously.
"My business is making and selling chocolate.... Because that's the business I learned from my mother since I was a little girl, and now I'm teaching it to my daughters. We have to work hard to help our children move forward in life," Maria Luisa Chaca, Suchitepéquez Village.
In 2012, Maria organised a women's group, who collectively received trainings on improving their chocolate production and marketing.
Productive landscapes, happy Communities
More than 90 percent of cocoa production comes from smallholder farms that depend on this income as a major source of their livelihoods. These small farmers and their families are transitioning to more sustainable methods of using their land - which for Maria and her community means finding ways to farm on steep slopes very vulnerable to erosion and landslides.
Maria's women's group often face challenges in adopting better production practices: low yields from older trees, pests and diseases that target cocoa plants, difficulty obtaining farming supplies, and limited access to financing for those improvements.
In response, the project "Productive Landscape Resilient to Climate Change and Strengthened Socioeconomic Networks in Guatemala" is supporting groups of organised women producing cacao to improve the quality and profitability of artisanal chocolate, promoting the recovery of cocoa plantations.
With financial support from the Adaptation Fund, UNDP and Guatemala's Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources are addressing environmental risks through community-based and community-driven adaptation.
The Art of Chocolate
The project is working to improve ecosystem management and reduce community vulnerability by partnering with local community-based organisations to integrate better agricultural practices that mitigate the effects of climate change. Their efforts underscore the value of traditional and ancestral production systems by making investments which promote resilient production practices.
There is no better place in the world to cultivate varietals of cocoa which are adapted to changing climate conditions than its original homeland. The Guatemalan cocoa cultivation system - which employs inter-cropping of cocoa with other native plants - improves soil coverage that prevents from erosion (especially in steep slopes) and helps with the recovery and conservation of biodiversity in the region.
As Maria proudly says: "Cocoa is our future, it's our crop. It's in our nature as Guatemalans."
For more information, visit the UNDP CCA project profile here.
Footnotes: Story by Andrea Egan and UNDP Guatemala / Photos: UNDP Guatemala/Caroline Trutmann
San Antonio Suchitepéquez, Suchitepequez, Guatemala