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Ancestral Rainforests: Cacao Trees in Mexico

  • Forests

Cacao Trees in Mexico’s Ancestral Rainforest

The cacao tree has a long and illustrious history in Mexico. It has been used by indigenous civilizations for thousands of years and is a cherished source of food, medicine, and spiritual sustenance. In the modern era, it remains influential, especially as it serves as the source of chocolate, a beloved treat. But as vital as cacao is to the culture of Mexico, its impact on the country’s ancestral rainforest is both profound and largely unnoticed.

The History of Cacao in Mexico

Cacao has been used in Mexico since at least the 5th century BC, with archaeological evidence of its use by the ancient indigenous civilizations such as the Olmecs, Mayans, and Aztecs. They held it in high esteem as a spiritual as well as crucial part of their diet. For them, its use was associated with happiness and abundance and it was believed to be a gift from the gods.

In this way, cacao was connected to spiritual and religious practices. Offerings to the gods were made of cacao beans and the Aztecs often used it to pay taxes. And its use in the form of a frothy, spicy, and bitter drink known as the ‘xocolatl’ was believed to have magical properties that affected the mind, body and soul. Even today, Mexicans have a softly spiritual approach to chocolate that sometimes borders on the mystical.

Cacao’s Traditional Rainforest Distribution

Cacao grows in warm, rainy tropical climates and is therefore most commonly found in rainforest regions. Its origin is disputed, though the most widely accepted theory is that it originally grew in the heights of the Andean mountains. From there, it eventually spread to Central America and then on to Mexico.

These original wild plants grew in the rainforests of Mexico and Central America and still do to this day. This is known as the Forastero variety of cacao, the species that accounts for the overwhelming majority of modern cocoa production.

Cacao’s Unique Role in the Rainforest

Cacao forms a unique and important part of local rainforest ecosystems. It grows in the shade of other trees and its canopy creates an ideal environment for other species. This in turn helps create a diverse and productive ecosystem. However, it is also sensitive to deforestation as cacao plants grow best in the filtered light of the forest’s canopy.

Cacao is an understory plant, meaning it relies on other trees for protection and relies on the existing soil structure for its nutrition. It generally cannot survive or thrive in areas that have been heavily logged or that have experienced extended periods of drought. As such, it is a vital indicator species in the rainforests of Mexico and other tropical areas.

Ancestral Rainforests: Cacao Trees in Mexico two

The Impact of Globalization on Cacao Production

Cacao is an immensely profitable crop with the global industry being valued at billions of dollars. As such, it has become an attractive option for farmers, especially as Mexico has seen its conventional agricultural production decline in recent years. This has led to the deforestation of swaths of rainforest as new plantations are created for the farming of cacao.

The farmer’s intentions are good, with much needed income being injected into many rural communities, yet the negative environmental impacts are not to be understated. Deforestation of rainforest ecosystems can have a vast systemic impact on a region, leading to loss of biodiversity and exacerbating the problem of global warming.

Conservation Efforts To Preserve Cacao

Conservationists are working hard to preserve cacao’s historical home in Mexico’s ancestral rainforest. Several botanical gardens and agroforestry sites have been created to study and protect the species. There has also been a push to move away from large plantations and toward smaller scale plots of cacao, known as ‘shade grown’ or ‘traditional’ cacao. These small plots not only help to conserve the rainforest and its biodiversity, but also help to maintain the unique flavor and aroma of traditional cacao.

In addition to this, a variety of conservation initiatives have been launched to protect the rainforest and its species. These include the establishment of protected areas, the development of sustainable farming practices, and the promotion of biodiversity and habitat restoration projects. These efforts are helping to revive Mexico’s ancestral rainforest and save the beloved cacao species for generations to come.


Cacao has a long and revered history in Mexico and is an integral part of its culture and ancestral heritage. This is mirrored in the rainforest environment where it plays an important role in supporting biodiversity as well as providing vital sustenance to the local populations.

Now, with the global demand for chocolate ever-increasing, it is vital that the future of cacao in Mexico’s ancestral rainforest is safeguarded. We must ensure that usages of sustainable farming practices are adopted and that large scale deforestation is avoided. If a balance can be achieved, then cacao will continue to enjoy a long and prosperous future.

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