Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center

Shade Grown Cacao

The overstory of shade trees in a traditional cacao plantation provides habitat for a variety of birds.

As a perennial tree crop traditionally and still predominantly cultivated beneath a diverse shade cover by small-scale producers, cacao has the intriguing potential of serving both economic and environmental ends.

The shaded system enhances the soil, protects it from erosion, provides non-cacao products to the farmer and a refuge to an array of animal groups like birds, insects, small mammals, and reptiles.

Smithsonian researchers compared bird populations in shaded cacao plantations with nearby undisturbed tropical forest remnants in Panama. Initial surveys indicate that bird diversity in shade-grown cacao plantations is comparable to that in forest.

Studies have been done to determine the benefits that birds provide to cacao farmers in Bocas del Toro Province, Panama by examining their effect on plant-eating insects.

Exclosures were set up that kept birds away from cacao plants and prevented them from eating insects that defoliate the plants. Other plots without exclosures were used for comparison.

Results found higher numbers of arthropods (insects and spiders), and more leaf damage on exclosure trees than on non-exclosure trees. Birds do play an important role in controlling insects in cacao plantations. The chestnut-sided warbler, in particular, was often seen foraging for insects in cacao.

And yet, the future of ecologically sustainable cacao production by small-scale producers is by no means assured.

Shade Grown Cacao Workshop (1998)