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Restoring the Cocoa of Bulukumba

Almost two decades ago, cocoa was always the leading commodity of South Sulawesi (Sulsel) in supporting the region’s export performance. In its heyday, South Sulawesi’s cocoa was the belle of the plantation sector, contributing significantly to the welfare of cocoa farmers in production centers. The plant, more commonly referred to as the chocolate fruit, is widely used as an ingredient in various food and beverage products, such as milk, jam, bread, and so on. Cocoa has positively impacted the community’s economy by providing employment and encouraging agro-industrial development.

Unfortunately, the productivity of this crop has suddenly plummeted due to climate change, pest and disease attacks, and declining crop productivity due to old age. Farmers’ lack of understanding regarding efforts to develop and increase cocoa production has also contributed to the crop’s decline. Pung Maha, one of the indigenous people living in the Ammatoa Kajang Customary Forest Area, in Tambangan Village, Bulukumba Regency, South Sulawesi, said cocoa production in the area had dropped dramatically, from 500 kilograms per hectare to 300 kilograms per hectare. “The decline in production is partly due to plant pests, and we do not understand how to properly care for and maintain cocoa plants,” said Pung Maha.

Data from the Agriculture and Food Security Office of Bulukumba Regency in 2023 shows that agricultural land area of around 22,720.79 hectares and plantations of 33,587.10 hectares have experienced a significant decline in production, leading to villagers being reluctant to care for their cocoa plants. Consequently, in the 1990s, the area of cocoa plantations shrank and even disappeared as many farmers switched to monoculture food crops considered to have higher economic value and relatively faster rejuvenation, such as corn. Repeated monoculture farming can cause ecosystem imbalances and reduce biodiversity. The soil can also become exhausted due to the specific nutrient requirements of a single crop that is continuously grown.

For this reason, KEMITRAAN, together with the Payo-Payo Oase Consortium, aims to revive agroforestry plants as an alternative source of family livelihood. The chosen plants are climate-resistant cacao seedlings. Climate resilience means resistance to cold, heat, strong winds, drought, and/or flooding. The Adaptation Fund (AF) program targets three sustainable integrated watersheds in the Ammatoa Kajang Customary Area, Bulukumba, South Sulawesi Province. The AF program sees that cocoa still has great prospects to return as a leading commodity. “That’s why we developed a demonstration plot to serve as an example. In this garden, good cocoa farming practices are implemented, increasing production while still protecting the environment and maintaining ecosystem balance,” explained Musliadi, one of the Adaptation Fund Program Facilitators.

Musliadi, commonly called Mul, explained the good practices taught by the AF Team, starting from mapping, forming working groups, preparing group work plans, nurseries, field schools, mentoring, and finally planting practices in the demonstration plots. “We invite the group to respond and adapt by planting cocoa seedlings that are resistant to climate change using the shoot grafting method. Good, smart, effective, and environmentally friendly agricultural practices are what is emphasized in the AF Program,” Mul continued. A total of 318 people have participated in the shoot grafting training, and each person received 26 cocoa seedlings planted on 0.013 hectares of land. Mul explained that from a total of 4.18 hectares of AF Program pilot land, it is hoped that it can be replicated to 48 hectares of total land in Tambangan Village.

This shoot grafting method is a new innovation that has never been done by indigenous people in Tambangan Village. So far, they have only used conventional methods or generative methods, which are techniques for propagating plants using seeds that have been sown and then put directly into polybags. This method has proven to be less effective because the characteristics of cocoa plants are not necessarily uniform and can differ from the parent plant.

At the demonstration plot, Pung Maha said that the current market price of cocoa is much more favorable compared to corn. One kilogram of corn is only valued at Rp3,000, while one kilogram of cocoa can be valued at up to Rp20,000. “In the past, when cocoa prices soared sharply, many farmers here suddenly became rich. When we remember those times, we become enthusiastic again to plant and care for cocoa plants because it is the highest source of our income,” explained Pung Maha when met by the AF Team at the Tambangan Village demonstration farm.

The AF Team had the opportunity to see firsthand the stages of the shoot grafting technique practiced by Daming, Head of Teteaka’ Hamlet, Tambangan Village. He explained that shoot grafting is a technique of multiplying plants by combining two rootstock plants with the upper stem (entres) to create a new plant. “We use cacao centres that have already borne fruit and then graft them to new seedlings. This is done so that the plants bear fruit faster and produce fruit quality that is as superior as the parent plant. To get quality and climate-resistant cocoa plants, we use Clone 45 and Sulawesi 2 seeds,” he said.

Daming, Head of Teteaka’ Hamlet, Tambangan Village, who is also a member of the Tambangan Village agroforestry group, practicing the stages of the shoot grafting technique.

Then, Pung Maha showed some of the trees that had produced a lot of fruit even though the trees were not yet tall. He recalled that in the past, when he was not familiar with this method, cacao took three years to bear fruit. Now, after using shoot grafting, within 10-13 months, there is already a lot of fruit. “I apply all the knowledge taught by my mentor. From the 26 seedlings I received, I multiplied them to 200 cocoa seedlings, all of which grew well and bore a lot of fruit. Our next-door neighbors have also started to follow our lead, so now there are 10 replication plots from the training in this village,” said Pung Maha.

Continuous Facilitation

The Adaptation Fund program in Bulukumba successfully introduced the shoot grafting method to beneficiaries. This method corrected the techniques that had been previously practiced by the community.

Syamsuddin, the head of the Agroforestry Group, said the group currently has 25 members. For six months, with the help of AF Program assistants, they conducted various field activities. They were also introduced to the correct intercropping method, where two or more crops are planted simultaneously or nearly simultaneously at a certain distance in the same agricultural area. “So far, we thought we had been practicing the intercropping method because we planted several crops in one garden. But it turns out that what we did was just overlapping, planting all types of plants without knowing the right way. That’s why our crop production decreased or even died, hehehe,” said the group leader.

The fruit of a 13-month-old cacao tree resulting from the shoot grafting technique in Tambangan Village, Bulukumba Regency, South Sulawesi.

The demonstration plot is also planted with other intercrops, such as long beans, chilies, tomatoes, and so on, so that the harvest can be a source of income while waiting for the cacao trees to mature.

Daming, Head of Teteaka’ Hamlet, Tambangan Village, appreciated the facilitation from KEMITRAAN and the Payo-Payo Oase Consortium in improving farmers’ resources so they can recultivate cocoa plants and other agroforestry plants, thereby reducing household expenses and improving the household economy. Daming emphasized that the cocoa farmer group needs intense facilitation because the cocoa is currently being attacked by caterpillar pests. However, this does not diminish the enthusiasm of group members in caring for cocoa plants. There are many ways to address this, one of which is that the AF Program has prepared further training to be conducted in October 2023, focusing on controlling pests and diseases of cocoa plants using technical culture methods.

Pest and disease attacks have the potential to reduce cocoa productivity by up to 70 percent. Various efforts must be made, including rejuvenating plants using quality seeds.

This intense mentoring is indeed very necessary with the aim of increasing the group’s understanding of cocoa development in order to increase production and farmers’ income in the future,” concluded Musliadi. (shabs)

[1] Adaptation Fund Bulukumba. 2022. Quarterly Report V: “Adapting to Climate Change through Sustainable Integrated Watershed Governance in Indigenous People of Ammatoa Kajang Customary Area in Bulukumba Regency, South Sulawesi Province, Indonesia”