Kew Fund: Chocolate, Rainforests and Conservation
Cacao (Theobroma cacao), the plant that gives us chocolate, is just one of many rainforest plant species which are grown and used by people. Find out how Kew's work is helping to protect this species in South America.
12 Apr 2011
Theobroma cacao can be seen in Kew’s Princess of Wales Conservatory and also in the Palm House, which displays plants from tropical rainforests, including banana (Musa), rubber (Hevea), cotton (Gossypium) and coffee (Coffea).
Introducing the cocoa tree
In its natural habitat, the cocoa tree (Theobroma cacao) – the plant that gives us cocoa which is turned into chocolate – grows in the tropical rainforests of Mexico, Central America and northern South America (Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Brazil, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana), but it has also been introduced as a crop plant into many tropical African and Asian countries. Today, West Africa produces about 70% of all the world’s cocoa.
The Malvaceae plant family, of which cocoa is a member, contains many useful plants, used for food, clothing, healthcare and fuel. These include cotton (Gossypium hirsutum), ornamental Hibiscus species, okra (ladies fingers, Hibiscus esculentus), the genera Ceiba and Bombax (from which kapok fibre is derived), durian fruit (Durio zibethinus) and balsawood (Ochroma pyramidale).
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Kew's work in South America
Kew is a world-leading plant science and conservation organisation, discovering and understanding the diversity of plants and working with 800 organisations in more than 100 countries.
Kew has a long history of botanical research in Latin America, focusing both on the drylands, particularly in Brazil, and also working in Peru, Bolivia and the Brazilian Amazon, where Kew is supporting conservation and sustainable use.
In the Brazilian Amazon, Kew is working with local partners (scientists, landowners and conservation agencies) to help establish and strengthen protected areas through the provision of vital information on the vegetation. These areas not only support wild populations of the cocoa tree, but also several of their ‘cousins’ in the Theobroma genus.
A species under threat
As with other crops, cocoa is at risk from pests and diseases. Wild relatives may hold genetic adaptations making them immune to these threats, which could prove vital for safeguarding the future of cultivated cocoa. One of these relatives, Theobroma bicolor, produces an ‘alternative’ chocolate that was known by the Mayans as pataxte. Another (Theobroma grandiflorum), popularly known as cupuaçu in Brazil, is widely used to prepare a delicious fruity drink.
Kew is beginning to apply its botanical and seed conservation expertise to forest restoration in the Amazon. In populated areas, restored forests need to provide for local livelihoods, including cash crops. Cocoa cultivation, if done in the right way (e.g. using mixtures of native tree species for shade), can go hand-in-hand with the reintroduction and conservation of biodiversity.
In the great tropical rainforests of Africa, Kew’s fieldwork is focusing on conducting specimen-based surveys of plants and fungi to produce 'conservation checklists' that document the plant species present and assess their global conservation status. This is vital information that allows threatened species to be identified, monitored and managed.
How Kew's work is making a difference
A global analysis of extinction risk for the world's plants, conducted by Kew and other leading conservation groups, has revealed that one in five of the world’s plant species are threatened with extinction. Use our interactive map to find out more. As a result, Kew is taking positive action to help conserve and restore the world's plant diversity:
- In Brazil, Kew is collaborating with other groups to help secure the 184,000 hectare Cristalino State Park and its surroundings – one of the highest priority conservation areas on the southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon.
- The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the world’s most ambitious plant conservation project; it already stores seeds of 10% of all plant species and is aiming to meet a target of 25% by 2020.
- Kew is working with local people to restore habitats and develop sustainable livelihoods, ensuring a brighter future for plants and the people who depend on them.
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