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Jan 20, 2020 7:00:43 AM6 min read

Cocoa Friends

By Juan José Hincapié Agricultural Analyst

Refreshed and republished on August 16, 2022
This post was originally published on January 20, 2020, and has been enhanced and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Before working at Luker Chocolate as a trainee at Granja Luker (La Granja), our cocoa research and training center, I imagined that I would work in an office with white walls, full of computers - but I was very wrong.

When I first arrived at Granja Luker, my welcome committee was made up of a pack of very grumpy dogs who wouldn’t let me into the center. The good guard dogs that they are, they’re in charge of keeping the farm safe. It was only after building a relationship with them that they let me casually walk in so I could get to my new job.  Without knowing it, one of the dogs -Peggy- would become my inseparable adventure companion. It was then that I realized that this was not a typical job. My working days would be spent in the middle of a cocoa forest and my time shared with hundreds of different species.

Promoting biodiversity in cocoa plantations

Plants and crops in general, are known to harbour an immense number of insects and animals. However, deforestation and the intensive use of monocultures have forced species to migrate or to increase their populations disproportionately, to such an extent that they are considered pests. 

For some time, forest plantations in Colombia have been used for commercial purposes and as strategic tools for the restoration of degraded soils, and the conservation of water resources. In spite of this, the effect of forest plantations on local diversity has been insufficiently evaluated, especially in the role they play as habitats for the restoration and conservation of biodiversity (Haggar et al., 1997, Barlow et al., 2007, Mitra and Sheldon 1993). 

In the case of Luker Chocolate, we have implemented agroforestry systems both on Granja Luker and on our cocoa farms in Necoclí (550 ha) and Casanare (1,000 ha), thus promoting biodiversity and an optimal environment for the conservation of autochthonous fauna and flora.

But how do we measure the biodiversity we promote with our crops?

An indicator of sustainable cocoa farming: species 

fino-de-aromaThe orange-chinned Parakeet spotted on Luker’s cocoa farm in Necoclí

Birds are used as an indicator of a region’s biodiversity. Easy to observe and counted at large scales, their abundance and occurrence is influenced by the characteristics and composition of the habitat with which they are associated, (GREGORY, 2006); RAMÍREZ-ALBORES AND RAMÍREZ-CEDILLO, 2002). In 2021, two new bird species were recorded in Luker’s cocoa forest in Necocli, (Rhynchocyclus olivaceus and Sporophila bouvronides). Thus reaching the incredible sum of 189 species in an area of 550 hectares.

An unusual lunch break at Granja Luker

At Granja Luker, we measure biodiversity not only based on the presence of birds but also on the many other species that inhabit the crop’s ecosystem. Many of which have become cocoa friends over time. Here are some of my most memorable anecdotes involving some of them.

On my first day of work, I decided to tour the farm with Peggy. As we walked, she started barking and frantically chasing after a group of birds. As I got closer, I realized that these animals were not in the cocoa field by chance; on the contrary, they were setting traps on the cocoa fruits to attract insects that would become their food.

Little by little, the day progressed and it was soon time for lunch. In an ordinary office, lunchtime is usually a time to engage casually with our colleagues, but this was not the case for me. My colleagues were a little ‘different’. As I approached the dining room 1 km away from the main house, I came across chickens that were also looking for food, as well as a couple of hungry ducks and a parrot that shouted “¿Quiere cacao?”.

A stinger boss

A month later, I went to gather fruit with the farmworkers under a completely clear sky; the day was sunny, and I believed that no wrong could happen. But all of a sudden, I felt as though I was being electrocuted. I started screaming and the workers, who are used to such events, told me to take my shirt off because I was being stung by tiny wasps. I listened to them and managed to get rid of the insects, but then I decided to go back to see what had stung me, only to be stung again!

I had been warned that in life one has both good and bad bosses. Some of them may even be moody, but I do not think that anyone has been so severely judged by a boss as I was by those wasps; surely that was their way of telling me that I had to be more respectful of their home.

The ecosystem at La Granja also includes white worms that are colloquially called “gusano pollo'' or chicken worms. Only appearing at certain times of the year, the first time I heard about them was when a farmer was pruning the trees. One of these worms, unfortunately, bit and left him with a fever all day long. However, normally these animals go unnoticed as they feed on the leaves and live below them.

Friend or foe? 

A day like no other, the team and I crossed a guadua bridge. It was here that  we came across a small friend who could be terrifying for some and fascinating for others: a snake located amongst the trees near a creek that crosses through the farm. 

When we saw it, I panicked and decided to back away, but she was perfectly comfortable amongst humans. To my surprise, one of the farm workers took her in his hands to take pictures, as she was considered as a “pet” that belonged to the farm. Often snakes are killed in the region out of fear or to protect livestock, but this one was being protected by the workers as snakes keep prey populations in balance. After the photo was taken, the worker put her back in her den, while I recovered from the shock!

Carers of the forest

Finally, I will never forget the day when one of the farm workers spotted something tiny moving in the bushes. It was a baby squirrel that had lost its mother. Determined to help the vulnerable creature, the worker took it back to the main farm to restore it back to health and protect it from predators. In time, the squirrel decided to go its own way, but it often comes back to visit the worker that helped it as a baby, or to eat cocoa cobs!

These are just a few of the many species that live here and show how a cocoa crop can become a sanctuary for hundreds of coexisting vertebrate and invertebrate animals. Be it possums, armadillos, guatines, dogs, cats, ducks, rabbits,  snakes or insects. All species must be protected and cared for because they perform a task that is way more important than anything humans can do: they control the balance of populations and biodiversity of an entire ecosystem. While they do such an outstanding job, I, who remain working at La Granja as an agricultural analyst, will continue to let them walk with me and fill my days with greater meaning.