Bagging Cocoa Fruits: A Sustainable Technique to Deal with Pests and Diseases in the Peruvian Amazon
Percy Salas Isuiza was born in Kawana Sisa, a native community of El Dorado province in San Martin, in the Amazonian region of Perú. He is married and has four kids. Since he was young, his parents taught him to crop cocoa, and now he has two hectares of land where he is cultivating this popular and valued fruit.
Before the diseases and pests expanded in the cacao trees in his community, Percy received regular incomes, because he always had a steady amount of dry cocoa beans to sell in the local market after every harvest season. But lately, he is losing about 70% of his fruits due to pests and diseases and does not know how to recover his production to maintain his household income.
“We have been worried about the production because we have a lower harvest and, therefore, the quality of the beans wasn’t good. When harvesting, spoiled seeds were more than healthy seeds and this issue affected our economy. It has been seven years facing up to insects and fruit tree diseases ravaging our crops without finding a solution,” said Percy.
The Carmenta foraseminis moth, commonly known as “mazorquero,” is the most critical cocoa pest cultivation in the entire region. According to the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development (CIRAD), mazorquero is an invasive species whose impact is continuing to increase in South America. In Peru, it was first observed in the Alto Huallaga Valley in 2013. The larvae of the mazorquero pierce the fruits and feed on the seeds, passing from the pupal stage inside to become butterflies, causing inadequate maturation and fermentation, and allowing the entry of fungi that cause rot. A report by Agronoticias, a popular Peruvian virtual magazine on agricultural news, indicated in 2018 that the damage produced could mean losses of 30 to 70% for farmers of the region, who, like Percy, would be harmed by their production costs.
The other main issue is the presence of diseases. Moniliasis (caused by the fungus Moniliophthora roreri) is the disease that causes the most damage in this region. The infection begins when the fungus’ conidia or reproductive spores reach the surface of the fruit, due to high humidity and temperature conditions. They germinate and penetrate the pod, causing internal damage in the early stages of the disease. The fungus infects only growing tissues, especially in young fruits.
The next disease of importance is black pod, caused by microorganisms of the genus Phytophthora, previously classified as fungi but currently grouped with the Kingdom Protistas. Black pod can attack different parts of the plant but, like moniliasis, it mainly damages the fruits that contain the product of commercial interest: the cacao beans.
Percy didn’t know there was a solution to deal with pests and diseases, without spending a lot of money to achieve it. One day, Percy received the Peruvian Extension and Research Utilization Hub (PERU-Hub) Extension Team on his plot. PERU-Hub is a project of the alliance between Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina (UNALM) and USAID. Also, PERU-Hub has been working with the Universities of Purdue, Utah State, Oklahoma and the Alliance Bioversity International-International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT), partners of the project since its creation. The project is being developed with the purpose of building a UNALM Hub in Tarapoto, San Martin, based on the utilization of research through technology transfer, promotion of alternative crops and entrepreneurship. When Esteban Altamirano, engineer in charge of the Extension Component of PERU-Hub, met Percy, he confirmed that he was one of the farmers in the region who suffered from the same problem.
“Pests and diseases are strong and serious problems for San Martin producers. It is very common for the producer to pile up his production on the soil, discarding over 60% of the production,” Esteban stated.
Percy had a plot that he had already abandoned because of the high losses of cacao fruits due to these insect and fungus problems. During a visit to Percy’s farm, the PERU-Hub team implemented integrated crop management in this abandoned plot, which included the use of bags to optimize the growth of healthy fruit.
The bags protect the fruit, preventing it from the attack of the three common cocoa problems: the mazorquero pest, as well as the moniliasis; black spot; and witch’s broom fungus. The bags are biodegradable, thus, they do not pollute the environment. Percy has started to use the bags on younger fruits of his next harvest, and he hopes for good results with enthusiasm, whereas before, he had an abandoned plot.
“I am now seeing many healthy fruits per tree. I see that the trees have a higher performance. I don’t see many diseases now. If there is any of that, it is the minimum part. I think I can say that I will have more good fruit than bad,” Percy commented.
Esteban Altamirano informed that each bag costs about a penny (4 cents in soles), so its use is highly profitable for the farmer. “It is essential to know that we can reuse these bags. This means that the bags can last for two or three campaigns, so using them is very cheap.”
The bagging technique, as well as pruning (the practice of cutting unnecessary branches to give it the proper structure, balance the growth of the tree and enhance all its productive capacity) and biological controls, are activities that PERU-Hub will continue to encourage farmers to do, to strengthen their knowledge and skills. As mentioned by engineer Altamirano, “Our principal goal, as the Extension Component of PERU-Hub, is to promote farmers so they can manage their crops by themselves. They need to know how to do the integrated management of cocoa cultivation to obtain a good yield and improve their income, and, therefore, their quality of life.”
The adoption of the bagging technique is not a common practice for some farmers in Perú and other countries. Percy and many of the smallest producers in the Amazonian region always trust their ancestral knowledge passed down from their parents and grandparents. But Percy realized that this knowledge wasn’t enough when he started to attend the Farmers Field School (FFS), an initiative of PERU-Hub for training San Martin producers. The principal goals of FFS are teaching producers to improve the management technologies for cocoa and other crops of interest, and having jointly defined and implemented an integrated management plan. This will improve the production quality and average yields of their harvests in the region, increasing profits per hectare.
Percy Salas also didn’t know that he had a high-quality cocoa clon to produce chocolate. He makes the production process from fermentation until drying, selling the beans before the toasting process to an intermediary trading company. Now, he has also learned about the better quality of his clon, as well as its profitability, and is very excited about his next harvest.
“I want to thank the entire PERU-Hub team. Thanks to them we are improving our cocoa crops,” said Percy, pointing to their cocoa trees, all of them bearing healthy fruit.