Witches’ Broom: The Mystery of Chocolate and Bioterrorism in Brazil

Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree, Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons
“Geographic and Genetic Population Differentiation of the Amazonian Chocolate Tree,” Juan C. Motamayor, Philippe Lachenaud, Jay Wallace da Silva e Mota, Rey Loor, David N. Kuhn, J. Steven Brown, Raymond J. Schnell; from Wikipedia commons

When people think of chocolate, they may know that it roots stretch back to Mexico, where Aztec emperors used to drink a frothy concoction of cacao and chile. They are less likely to know that cacao originally came from the Amazon, most likely somewhere in Ecuador, which still has the most genetically diverse cacao trees. How it traveled north, perhaps on trading ships along the Pacific Coast, or overland through Central America,  we will never know. But its origins are less of a mystery, than the disappearance of chocolate in Northeastern Brazil beginning in the late 1980s.

Chocolate was originally brought from the Amazon to Brazil’s north-east in 1746. This region was colonial Brazil’s heartland, where the legacy of slavery had created a society defined by both poverty and social inequality.  I spent two months in Recife, Brazil in 1990, where I saw the gold and jewels in the Baroque churches, and the poverty in the countryside. This poverty -and the power of traditional elites- may have motivated one of the greatest crimes in all history, if such a crime actually took place.

When cacao left the Amazon for Mexico, West Africa and Indonesia, it left behind a host of ominous diseases. One of these plagues was Witches’ Broom, which is a fungus that lands on a tree in the form of spores, which create a strange pink growth. At first this fungus greatly reduces the tree’s production of cacao, but with time it is fatal. In the Amazon, where trees are dispersed through the forest it spreads slowly. But on plantations, it moves very quickly.

It was a disaster when the disease first appeared in Bahia, in Brazil’s northeast, in May 1989. The government immediately began an eradication effort, led by an agency named CEPLAC, which had been founded in 1957 to support the cacao agency. The cacao industry was in decline, and this agency was intended to revive it. Because of cacao’s importance to the economy, CEPLAC made huge investments to fight the disease. Entire strips of trees were bulldozed, while mobile blowers and a helicopter sprayed fungicide onto other trees. For a time, it appeared that they were successful. Then cacao growers about 60 miles away found another outbreak. Containment was no longer possible (for a history of the containment efforts, see J.L. Pereira, de Almeida and Santos, “Witches’ Broom disease of cacao in Bahia: attempts at eradication and containment,” Crop Protection, 1996 15:8, ppl, 743-752).

Crinipellis perniciosa mushroom from http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/ Image Number K8626-1 Spores released from the fan-shaped basidiocarp of this inch-wide Crinipellis perniciosa mushroom can infect cacao trees and drastically reduce yields of the beans from which cocoa and chocolate products are made. Photo Scott Bauer. Obtained from Wikipedia Commons
Crinipellis perniciosa mushroom from http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/graphics/photos/
Image Number K8626-1
“Spores released from the fan-shaped basidiocarp of this inch-wide Crinipellis perniciosa mushroom can infect cacao trees and drastically reduce yields of the beans from which cocoa and chocolate products are made. Photo Scott Bauer.” Obtained from Wikipedia Commons

What was most disturbing was that circumstantial evidence suggested that the diseases’ introduction had been deliberate. The first introduction had been along a road, while the second was along a river. It also did not appear along the edge of plantations, but rather in their heart. As early as 1991, scientists speculated in an article in New Scientist that someone had deliberately introduced the disease into the region so as to undermine the power of traditional elites. But for a long time there was no hard evidence. Then the Brazilian newsmagazine Veja published an article in June 2006 in which a man confessed to having introduced the disease. He was an employee of CEPLAC, the very agency that the government had charged to eradicate Witches’ Broom. And he accused other employees, as well as CEPLAC’s director, whom he claimed had acted for political motives. As members of the Worker’s Party, they had sought to undermine the power of traditional elites, allegedly through bioterrorism, as Jean Phillipe Marelli has described (his work is the best single source on the topic). In other words, the very agency charged with defending cacao in Brazil had been working to destroy it. The man claimed that the employees had traveled to the Amazon more than once to get the infected material, which they had brought back in old rice bags.

One can imagine the shock that these accusations created. Cacao growers were furious. A public hearing was held, but it ruled that there was not enough evidence to decide if the story was true. As people studied the man’s confession, they came to have more and more questions about his credibility. Supporters of the Workers’ Party claimed that the magazine Veja had acted in bad faith or for political motives. Scientists still debate whether bioterrorism caused the outbreak. But the truth is that to date, nobody knows with certainty what happened.

If it was a deliberate introduction of the fungus, there are parallels between this story and the anthrax attacks after 9/11 in the United States. In that case, a series of envelopes filled with anthrax were sent to the media and political leaders. The FBI launched an intensive investigation, which initially focused on the wrong suspect. A new suspect emerged, Bruce Edwards Ivins, but he committed suicide in 2008 before he could be brought to trial. He had been a scientist working on an anthrax vaccine. In both cases, it seems that the people charged with protecting their citizens from a disease may have been the very people to unleash it.

In Brazil, cacao production fell in some localities by nearly eighty percent. North-eastern Brazil was devastated. The disaster was so great that it had a social impact. Farmers were not compensated for their loss of trees or revenue. People walked away from the land and went to the cities. Equipment lay unused. Even the ecosystem changed, as people converted their land to pasture instead of forest, and water washed the soil away.

Plant geneticists are now hard at work to find strains of cacao resistant to this disease. If such strains exist, doubtless they are to be found in the Amazon. But this will take a long time. In the meantime, what will happen if the disease is brought to West Africa, India or Indonesia? There the trees have less genetic diversity than in Brazil. What is disturbing is that Witches’ Broom is not unique. As Wade Davis described in One River, the rubber plantations of Asia were created with trees from Brazil, which could only thrive because they were free from diseases endemic to the Amazon. If those diseases ever reached, say, Sri Lanka, the rubber that forms the basis for everything from car tires to electrical insulation would rapidly disappear. So the story of Witches’ Broom may be a cautionary story about many modern crops, which are grown in plantation conditions far from their place of origin. The bottom line is that modern agriculture relies on a small number of crops, which are not genetically diverse, and are produced in great quantities in a limited area. So many other crops are vulnerable. And Witches’ Broom may not be the last example of bioterrorism, although what truly happened in Bahia still remains a mystery.

For more information on chocolate and other crops, see chapter eight in our textbook. And please give my colleague Kim Brown a gentle nudge finally to write her book on food.

A quick update on June 6, 2014: to see my review of a documentary by Dilson Araújo on this topic, click here. Or to read my own book on military terror in Brazil, please click here. If you do look at this link, please ignore the book’s ugly cover.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University


14 thoughts on “Witches’ Broom: The Mystery of Chocolate and Bioterrorism in Brazil”

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  2. It really was a case of biological terrorism as contained in the report of the Federal Police and the Ministry of Agricutura.
    The issue is addressed in the documentary “The node: deliberate human act”, released during the film festival in Bahia, Brazil, in May this year. Teaser: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GIm3eLzt990


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  5. Thanks Dilson for sharing this information. I’d be curious to hear (in English or Portuguese) about the feedback that you’ve received on your documentary. How have people reacted to your work? How did you decide to do this project? Parabens! Shawn

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  8. From the release of the documentary “The Knot: deliberate human act”, people began to take notice that the disease was criminally introduced here. The reactions are varied, but the outrage is general. However, even with all the angst of producers and traders, victims of crime, the Brazilian government remains conveniently silent when time runs judicially cocoa farmers for the debts incurred to fight the disease. It is a shameful situation.

    1. Dilson,
      Thanks for posting this comment. It is interesting to me that this strange case has not received more media coverage internationally than it has, but perhaps that reflects a reticence by the Brazilian government to address this topic. Thank you for sharing this. Shawn

      1. Dilson Araújo

        The Brazilian government has systematically hiding the subject, which indicates a tactic not to assume the responsibilities of its omission and negligence in handling the case.

        watch it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0mPiYocm-4#t=716&hd=1

        “The criminal introduction of the witch’s broom disease to the cocoa crops in the south of Bahia, along with the failure of the Brazilian government’s intervention through the Brazilian Crop Recovery Program, brought about a socio-economic and ecological disaster without precedents that rendered over 600.000 hectares of cocoa crops, destroying the lives and dreams of thousands of rural workers and their families, cocoa cultivators, and salesmen. The event took away 250.000 jobs which caused the exodus of nearly 800,000 men, women, and children who lived on farms, and it broke the economy of nearly one hundred towns. The consequences of this catastrophe have been in evidence since 1989 and they affect, until this day, an important biogeographic zone which makes home to almost three million people. The documentary addresses the facts according to the evidences and scientific arguments contained in the reports of witnesses and official documents.”

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