Peruvian Graffiti flag image
Click to purchase at Amazon Kindle store

Witches' Broom and Frosty Pod waft deadly through the jungle night

We may face a chocolate-less 21st century

By Nicholas Asheshov

John Hedger, MA, PhD (Cantab), Professor of Biology at the University of Westminster, London, has a hot tip for those of us who want to make our fortunes without working.

"Buy cocoa futures for the year 2005," he says. Cocoa is going to be in such short supply that prices will be through el roofo."

Hedger is a leading authority on Witches' Broom (crinipellis perniciosa), a fungus that attacks cacao trees. His specialty is mycology and down in La Convención, a tropical upper-Amazon valley. for instance, he can pick up any old branch, the older the better, and identify three or four dozen different fungii. Each one has what seems like an endless sub-world of insects and ever-tinier thingies, from spores down to sub-particles.

With Witches' Broom, WB, tiny spores from rose-pink little toadstools, beautiful but deadly, go for young shoots, or hit the pods. They float off from the toadstools, mostly at night and especially between two and six of the morning, the dog watch, and can float, in their vaporous millions, as much as 10 or 12 miles through the tropic night.

Anyone who has spent a night out in the jungle senses that myriad things are afoot, as it were, another universe on the move, ebbing and flowing.

"'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe"

These stories of deadly beings floating purposively through the mimsy night are no more unbelievable than the stories told by Indian shamans, some of whom live near the cacao borogroves, of godly jaguars, snakes and witches.

The WB spores turn tender cacao shoots into hardened, leafless and fruitless branches -- hence the witches' brooms.

"The most disheartening is when a cacao farmer sees a nice crop and suddenly the pods dry up," John Hedger says.

On the road between Quillabamba and Chaullay, we stop at cacao groves for Hedger to collect samples of the local variety of WB to analyse back at Kew Gardens. The cacao trees are large and charmingly shady, with a thick layer of leaves on the ground. I think how nice it would be to have a pleasant hacienda in the tropics with wall-to-wall cacao trees.

"Don't," Hedger says. "They're all done for." I get, also, a little less enthusiastic when I find that millions of no-see-'ums are biting my wrists and neck. "Always that way in cacao orchards," Hedger says.

In La Convencion, where the surrounding jungle has largely been cut, the cacao orchards are mixed with mangoes, another wonderful tree, full of dark-green foliage, orange and lemon, and avocado trees, all lovely and shady. "If you're going to cut down the jungle," Hedger says, "cacao, citrus, palta and mango are excellent crops to replace it with. They protect the soil."

Where the Fungus Came From

Hedger's story is that Witches' Broom spread from Surinam, where it was identified in the 1880s.

During the 1920s Ecuadorian (and Brazilian, cf Jorge Amado) cacao planters would live in Paris and, when not in Paris, would send their shirts to be laundered there (the same is told of silver miners in Copiapò, Chile; cotton farmers in Piura; sugar farmers in Martinique and, more recently, the emerald and coca mafia chieftans of Medellin, who apparently prefer the launderettes of Miami and LA).

Then to Ecuador came the Witches' Broom, and the cacao barons north of Guayaquil went bankrupt instantly. The cacao groves in Ecuador have maintained themselves since then as poor cousins and because WB doesn't actually wipe out the tree and there are good and bad years.

But, as I understand it, today it is a subsistence crop in this part of the world. Typically, Witches' Broom knocks off four-fifths of the production in any grove.

It spread, as these things do, across western Amazonia to Peru, Bolivia and to Rondonia, in Brazil's western Amazon, some time ago. More recently and viciously, it was spread to the great traditional cacao groves of Bahia, on the Atlantic coast. It seems that DNA tests have proved that it was done deliberately, from Rondonia.

The big cacao producers are in West Africa -- Ghana, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria -- and Malaysia. These are not touched at the moment by WB.

"All it needs is some asshole taking a tiny sample of WB to West Africa or Malaysia. It will happen," Prof Hedger says.

Peru has always produced quite a lot of cacao, in the same way that it produces coffee and tea. That is, the quality is variable, running from very good to bad. The figures we'll have to leave to some quick-fingered internetted young journalist.

It seems that Nestle, Rowntrees, Cadburys and Hersheys are not yet prepared to do whatever is needed to finance mycologists like Prof Hedger to find an appropriate fungicide.


At one level, control is easy. In any given area, like La Convención, all you need is for everyone who has cacao trees to have a lad going round and cutting out the branches with the WB and simply burn them. After quite a short while you have no WB.

But this kind of non-chemical simplicity, it seems, is beyond us. Getting everyone in line is not one of those things that can be done, Hedger says. At least it hasn't been done in Ecuador, where Hedger has spent some years on research projects.

In the old days, I recall that in the valleys of the northern coast in Peru, specifically Sullana, Piura and south across the Sechura into Lambayeque, the cotton crop was severely regimented with the specific objective of controlling insect and fungus pests. Burning the waste, planting and harvesting was all done within rigidly-enforced time limits.

In theory the agrarian reform of the 1970s would have made this just as easy to continue and maybe it did. But for many years now there has been no law and less order in the agrarian sector in Peru. The cooperatives, mostly pathetic at best, collapsed leaving the co-op members disorganized.

As it happens, La Convencion was the first of all the valleys in Peru to be hit by the agrarian reform. A couple of guerrilla-style outbreaks in the early- and mid-'sixties pushed President (Fernando) Belaúnde, a nice chap but the most dangerously confused president of this past half-century, to co-operativize this area and its coffee, tea and cacao plantations, as we used to call them.

But supposing they were all to agree that these simple measures were worth taking for this obvious emergency, it seems that it would do the cacao farms little good. They might control the Witches' Broom, but Hedger says that something else, Monilia, frosty pod, is on its way, even more unstoppable.

Cacao prices have been low for the past decade and a half, thanks to the high consistent production from Malaysia and West Africa where, however, the quality isn't as high as the best Peruvian. Hedger says it seems to be something to do with the fermenting and drying.

Chocolate, of course, like most things nice, is bad for you. I forget why and am not interested in finding out. But if Witches' Broom and Frosty Pod are going to turn Mars Bars and After Eights into gourmet-priced luxuries without which you cannot live, you should phone your 'broker.