by Rowan Jacobsen
Video/Images: Alyssa D'Adamo of the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund
The Lacandon rainforest is a nearly impenetrable mass of mountains and jungle on the border between Mexico and Guatemala. It’s resisted most efforts to tame it so far. The first settlers didn’t arrive until the 1970s, and they didn’t get far. It’s still full of wildlife, a couple of uncontacted indigenous groups, and other people who would prefer that you didn’t contact them, thank you very much.
They knew the trees were a relic Criollo variety, dating back to ancient Mayan times, untainted by modern cacao introductions, so they named it “Sac Balam,” or “white jaguar,” after a famous settlement in the forest founded in 1586 by Lacandon Maya who refused to submit to the Spanish invaders. The Maya retreated to the jungle, built a community of about 100 houses, and lived off the land until 1695, when the Spanish finally forced them to integrate. Archaeologists have searched for the remains of Sac Balam for years, to no avail.
And the collecting expedition didn’t have much better luck with this ancient cacao. They germinated a number of seeds back at their research station in Soconusco, but they all died.
Still, for years, Alexander has wanted to revisit the jungle to get new samples, and this HCP expedition finally gave him an opportunity. Permissions to cross the area were obtained from the local community. That’s important in this rough part of Chiapas, one of many in the state under the control of the Zapatistas, the Marxist group that took over a big chunk of Chiapas in 1994, calling for land reforms and greater rights for indigenous groups. Although the Army drove them out of the main cities, they still control much of the Chiapan countryside, and they have morphed into a legit political party with tremendous popular support.
We were in core Zapatista territory, and they were excellent hosts. It seemed like smooth sailing. Still, you could feel the tensions simmering across Chiapas. Just hours after we’d left San Cristobal that morning, a local business leader had been gunned down, and in response there had been shooting and fires across San Cristobal and other towns as rival drug gangs settled scores. The whole state was a tinderbox. A lot of the narcotafficking takes advantage of the remote jungles where we were. So even though the community felt idyllic—clear streams, children playing, hillsides covered in cacao and maize—as strangers, we were at the mercy of our hosts.
But a little further down the road, our truck came to a halt by a small house for an emergency strategy session with some locals who knew what lay ahead. It seemed that the deeper part of the jungle where the cacao lay had recently been taken over by narcotraffickers who were farming poppies for heroin production. Everyone had hoped that they would be in a different part of the territory today, but unfortunately they were right where we needed to go. And if they saw strangers with cameras, it wouldn’t be good.
Under the circumstances, it seemed too dangerous to continue. Reluctantly, we turned back. Alexander was crushed. His quest to bring the Lacandon’s wild cacao genes back into the fold of Mexican cacao production was yet another victim of the global instabilities racking Latin America.
But there was a silver lining. When a trail guide at our lodge overheard us talking about wild cacao, he perked up. “There’s a tree here, up the trail,” he said. “Do you want to see it?”
Well, yes, we did. He led us up the trail into a Jurassic Park of thundering waterfalls and dripping limestone caves. Bats flitted in and out. At the base of a giant cliff, he stopped and pointed to a tree. “Cacao,” he said.
Alexander has a strong belief that everything happens for a reason, and he felt like it was in the plan for us to find these two trees all along.
As we wound our way out of the valley, headed for Soconusco—the land where Criollo was born, and where Alexander has been working for years with some of Mexico’s best cacao farmers in less volatile settings—it felt like the world of heirloom cacao was a tiny sailboat riding a storm of global forces. Perhaps the founders of Sac Balam had the right idea all along.