The Socio-Political History of Cacao Growing in the State of Bahia
- Mary Ann MahonyMary Ann MahonyDepartment of History, Central Connecticut State University
For most of the 20th century, a narrow coastal strip of the Brazilian state of Bahia was the largest producer of Theobroma cacao in the Americas and the second largest in the world. Cacao arrived in the region from the Amazon in the first half of the 18th century, and its cultivation expanded rapidly in the 19th century due to several factors, including a favorable climate, available land, labor too limited for growing sugar, and a developing international market. Initially grown by members of the rural poor, including mission Indians, slaves and ex-slaves, by the 20th century cacao had turned southern Bahia into a plantation region dominated by large estates and exploited workers. This economic expansion came at the expense of the region’s flora and fauna, as well as of the small holders who had initiated the sector. The problems associated with this form of development became clear when the cacao disease known as Witch’s Broom arrived in the region in 1989 and cacao production collapsed. Southern Bahian planters attempting to avoid bankruptcy laid off hundreds of thousands of illiterate rural workers and sold off surviving tropical hardwoods. Historians know the region primarily through the writings of cacao-area native and Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, but the region’s history goes much beyond the topics he covered and offers numerous opportunities for research.