Finding Biodiversity (and Chocolate) in the Forests of Ecuador
As a person who spends a lot of her time reading, writing, and teaching about endangered creatures and environments, I craved something hopeful.
While some see mining as a great opportunity, others adamantly protest these plans because of the ecological riches, ecotourism dollars, and indigenous territories that will be lost. Maps of the proposed and current mining treaties have been drawn. There are dozens in protected rainforest areas, including the space we were standing in. Industrial agriculture was another big threat.
Leaving the cloud forest behind, we drove to the coast. As the elevation changed, forests became less dense and the landscape less vertical. We passed roadside stands selling bananas, mangoes, and coconuts. Small towns made up of one-story cement block buildings with metal garage doors that opened up to stores offering everything from platano chips and brooms to auto mechanic services. We also passed hillsides that had been scraped clean of any growing thing. Some fields were still strewn with dead trees that had been cut down, but not yet been dragged from the fields, which struck me suddenly to be so much like fallen bodies after a horrible disaster.
Beyond these were billboards promising a palm paradise, and then we saw the vast acres of the palm plantations. The mono-crop was a landscape I knew well from driving past miles of cornfields in the midwestern US. Nothing between the rows. I thought of Mindo’s birds and insects. Each species had specific needs and played specific roles. Simplified chemical-dependent landscapes designed to grow only one plant or tree were antithetical to biodiversity. I couldn’t wait to meet the farmers who would teach us other ways of doing things.
In wetter weather, a river poured over the road to Ernesto Campo’s place, making it impossible to reach by car. We crossed a makeshift bridge and walked for an hour in the hot late-morning sun toward the small farm. Still drying out from the rains the night before, damp patches—left behind as puddles evaporated—covered the road. These patches attracted butterflies of every size and shape. Pewter blue, sky blue, bright yellow, white, orange, dark brown! Clouds of fluttering wings lifted into the air as we approached.
A simple arbor made of logs draped in magenta bougainvillea marked the entrance to Ernesto’s place. We walked down through a corridor of trees and flowering bushes to a clearing where he’d built his house. He and his daughter Lourdes greeted us with smiles. His vitality belied his eighty-four years. We sat on the porch of the house as they told us about their farm and the reasons for their organic, agro-ecology methods.
This farm did not conform to my ideas about farms from living in the midwestern US. There were no rows, no obvious division of species or types of tree or plant. And yet, he explained, his farm produced guava, coconut, bananas of many kinds, plantains, limes, passionfruit, pawpaws, oranges, mangoes, coffee, and chocolate. Many of these required insect pollination, and native insect species were abundant.
Behind the house, as some bananas––still in their peels––cooked over a fire, Ernesto showed us some trays of cacao beans, which require “5 times of sun” to dry out before they could be ground into the bitter cacao we would recognize. A few chickens poked the earth nearby for bugs.
Pewter blue, sky blue, bright yellow, white, orange, dark brown! Clouds of fluttering wings lifted into the air as we approached.
Ernesto and Lourdes are part of a group of farmers along the coast aligned to rehabilitate a forest corridor. The Corridor project, supported by an environmental group called Ceiba, was essentially maintaining and rejoining forest lands, so that habitats and soils would remain stable. The coast is home to a very unique ecosystem called a tropical dry forest. The integrity of a forest like this is often disrupted by logging, mining, and industrial agriculture. The agro-ecology model allowed the indigenous and local people to continue to obtain food from the forest while also keeping forests intact.
Lourdes walked us through “the farm,” which was essentially a forest. We walked past coffee plants and all kinds of fruit trees––banana, mango, pawpaw––until she stopped at one. This was the type of tree that supplied me with dark chocolate, hot cocoa, flourless chocolate cake, mole sauce. She wielded the machete she’d kept at her side with a decisive chop and sliced off a thick pod. Cut open, it was filled with oval seeds the size of quarters covered in a thick milky substance.
She directed us to put them in our mouths and suck them. The taste was sweet and subtle and tasted nothing like chocolate to me. These were the seeds that Ernesto would put in trays to dry in the sun. After they dried, they were opened, and the center was ground into a paste I knew to be unsweetened chocolate.
Chocolate plants have a special secret. Chocolate has a unique relationship, a beautiful symbiosis with one insect, upon which they are completely dependent for pollination. Cacao plants and their insect partners, the forcipomyia or chocolate midge, provided one powerful example of the co-evolutionary partnerships of certain plants and insects.
Without this specific type of midge, there would be no chocolate. While chocolate was thought to have been cultivated first in Mesopotamia, recent studies published in Nature Ecology and Evolution Journal, suggest pre-Columbian use of the plant.The human relationship with chocolate in Ecuador is thousands of years long, but we don’t often talk about our non-human conspirators, the midges.
The flowers of the cacao plant are incredibly fussy and very small, 1-3 millimeters, so small that most other pollinating insects will not be able to access the delicate parts important for pollination. The midge is small enough, measuring 2-3 millimeters, and very, very hairy––its antennae look like witches’ brooms––and this is good for these finicky flowers.
The midge is also good at navigating the complex anatomy of the somewhat chaste chocolate flowers. Strangely, the tallest, most erect parts of the flower, the staminodes, are not pollen producing. The pollen-producing male parts of the flower, the anthers, are hidden by hoods that must be uncovered by the hairy midges. The styles, the female parts, which want the pollen, are located in the middle of the tower of staminodes. The midge is the only insect who has successfully evolved to satisfy this coy plant.
These midges only thrive in a very specific climate, one with lots of shade and moist soil. As we face a warming climate and radical shifts in ecosystems due to industry and agriculture, these are insects at risk. But a place like Ernesto’s provided everything they needed to survive.
Maybe if enough of us shift our habits, if farmers like Ernesto and Lourdes were supported, if we could be more thoughtful before cutting forests down and made conscious decisions about what we consume, maybe then we could keep earth’s intricate and fragile kaleidoscope of living beings intact.
After eating some roasted bananas to sustain us on the road home, Drew bought a bag of cacao and a bag of coffee, while Ernesto told me about his plans for his next birthday, which would include lots of dancing. His great health, he claimed, was from eating organic food and refusing to eat red meat. His huge grin and merry eyes were convincing enough for me.
Heather Swan is the author of the creative nonfiction book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, which won the Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, a collection of poems, Remote Sensing (forthcoming from Terrapin Books) and the chapbook The Edge of Damage. Her nonfiction has appeared in Catapult, Aeon, Belt Magazine, Edge Effects, ISLE, Resilience Journal, among others. Her poetry has appeared in such magazines as Poet Lore, Phoebe, Raleigh Review, Basalt, Midwestern Gothic, and Cold Mountain Review. She teaches writing and environmental literature at UW Madison.