Agriculture / Expert Perspectives

Oil in the Sky

Last week, Rainforest Alliance auditor and trainer Noah Jackson shared a video blog on biodiesel production on a cacao estate in Papua New Guinea. In his latest blog, Jackson continues to share stories from the same estate – this time, exploring the link between cacao and coconut trees.

It’s midday, the air is still and we’re resting under the shade of a coconut tree. The shadow from the tree’s fronds is diffused against a cover of green, deflected from betel nut trees, long banana leaves and dense cacao leaves.

Farming on Kar Kar, an island off the coast of mainland Papua New Guinea, requires a delicate balance. Too much sun and the cacao crops become dry, leaves develop sun spots and soil hardens and becomes compacted.  Too much shade and the crops become too moist and fungal diseases (like black pod) spread throughout the tree and into the surrounding soil.  Only with the right balance, usually approximately 30 percent shade cover, can cacao thrive. This shade balance also leaves enough light under a mixed canopy for other crops, such as edible ground covers, wild yam and sweet potato, to thrive.

I’ve been riding in the back of a truck for most of the morning and am taking a break under this tree. If you count the papaya I’m munching on and the wild sweet potato growing around me, there are at least five income sources in my sightline.

As I sit, a breeze picks up and a coconut crashes through the multilayered canopy and onto the ground. A member of my party carries the coconut back to our group, along with a cluster of betel nuts that have also been dislodged by the wind.  Betel nut, a mild narcotic, is both a cash crop and an important part of the local cultural landscape.

Last week, I shared a video explaining the way that this estate makes biodiesel.  The process involves turning coconuts into copra — dried and roasted husks that can be used for charcoal production, soaps and coconut oils. The video also showed some of the waste products — including dried coconut husks, still rich in oil — that came out of the oil expellers. This waste is processed into pig feed and mixed with cacao tree prunings to help dry cacao beans after fermenting. (Editors note: a future blog post will cover the processing of cacao pods into dried beans that are processed into chocolate.)

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