Of all the heirloom cacao pods laid before us on a rickety wooden table, on this quiet hillside outside the city of Manta in Ecuador, the ancient variety known as Nacional was misleadingly plain. It was hard to believe this shriveled yellow pod contained one of the world’s rarest and most coveted cacao beans.

Then I tasted its fruit in its fresh, raw, pure form. The flesh is peachy and bright, with a fragrant and sugary bouquet. And the beans, once roasted and hand-ground into a thick paste, give off a rich scent of pure dark chocolate that becomes almost overpoweringly seductive.

Servio Pachard, one of the world’s foremost cacao experts, combined that paste in a metal bowl with sugar and other ingredients, his jaunty straw hat dipping over dark eyes. He gave a smile when the sugary chocolate, served in a shot glass, touched my tongue; I think I might have moaned in pleasure. I had never tasted chocolate like this—smooth and silky yet almost supernaturally bold in its flavor. I could understand why this fateful breed of chocolate had made chocolatiers swoon for generations—and why some modern-day chocoholics are willing to fork over several hundred dollars for a single bar.

Codex Tudela
A cacao tree from the Codex Tudela, an illustrated 16th-century Aztec text. Whpics / Dreamstime.com

Scholars estimate that Nacional was first cultivated more than 5,000 years ago, in what is now the Zamora Chinchipe province, and ancient traders planted these Nacional trees near the coast. A 2012 study found that European colonists began planting Nacionals themselves in the New World roughly a century after Columbus. The variety soon attained a global reputation for its strong aroma. Ecuador’s integration into the world economy in the 19th century was almost entirely dependent on the cocoa trade; in the late 1800s and early 1900s, its popularity exploded as chocolate became a craze in Europe. In Hamburg, Germany, then the center of the global cocoa trade, Nacional was particularly prized.

The Jama-Coaque Reserve
The Jama-Coaque Reserve is home to a genetic bank of 189 ancient Nacional clones. Johis Alarcón
Ecuador Map
Guilbert Gates

Then, in 1916, a blight called frosty pod rot ravaged cacaos, including Nacionals, and in 1919, the witches’ broom disease was thought to have finished off Nacional trees for good. Cacao yields in Ecuador plummeted, and growers introduced new hybrid and foreign varieties. The Nacional, with its distinctive and celebrated flavor, seemed to be a thing of the past—the dodo bird of the chocolate world.

But in 2011, to the astonishment of the world, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, in collaboration with Fortunato Chocolate, an American-founded company based in Peru, announced it had identified cacao trees in Peru that had ancient Nacional DNA. (While Ecuador was the center of the Nacional trade in the 18th and 19th centuries, Peru also boasted some of these precious trees.) Now, a partnership between local growers and Ecuador’s ecological preservationists is pulling this legendary cacao variety back from the brink of extinction.

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This article is a selection from the September/October 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

Clemencia Murillo and her husband, Mariano Ortiz
Clemencia Murillo and her husband, Mariano Ortiz, peel Nacional pods at their home in Camarones as their grandchildren look on. Johis Alarcón

“We call it the ‘Noah’s Ark’ of ancient Nacional cacao,” says Jerry Toth, the 45-year-old co-founder of the Third Millennium Alliance (TMA), a conservation nonprofit, and the co-founder of To’ak Chocolate, a private company that creates organically grown, top-of-the-line chocolate using Ecuadorean cacao grown by local farmers.

More than 30 families are now working with Toth to reforest their lands using seedlings from the nearly extinct tree. The rebirth of this once-lost treasure isn’t just a miracle for the chocolate-loving world—it’s also a milestone in reviving the rich heritage of Ecuador’s coastal forests and farming. And it may even offer hope for saving other endangered trees worldwide.

Toth wasn’t looking to rediscover a lost species when he co-founded TMA in 2007. His aim was simpler: to reforest degraded land. The Illinois-born conservationist, a graduate of Cornell University and the London School of Economics, relocated to Ecuador in 2006.

While researching methods to sustainably reforest the mountains of Ecuador’s Pacific coast, depleted by logging and deforestation, TMA determined that cacao trees were ideal for their shade tolerance and revenue potential.

To support himself financially, Toth co-founded To’ak in 2013 with Carl Schweizer, an Austrian colleague, and Dennise Valencia, a native of Quito, to make a 21st-century brand from Nacional cacao. (To’ak is a portmanteau of “earth” and “tree” from two Indigenous Ecuadorean languages.)

Farmer roasts cacao
A farmer from the Camarones community roasts Nacional cacao nibs to make some of the world’s most coveted chocolate. Johis Alarcón

“I was like, ‘I can start a company that really focuses on cacao at that point of origin and take it to a really high level [of chocolate], and I [can] do with chocolate what wine has been doing to grapes for a long time,’” Toth says. Accordingly, he aimed to mimic the world’s most discerning vintners, who prize the purity of old-growth heritage vines. So Toth set out to find some old-growth cacao trees. And no one knew more about old growth in Ecuador than Servio Pachard.

Pachard is a fourth-generation cacao grower and a member of the Seed Guardians Network, an alliance of families working to save heirloom seeds of all kinds in Ecuador. He’d also been informally advising TMA since its inception.

When Toth told Pachard he wanted to find the oldest cacao trees in the country, Pachard immediately recommended the remote valley of Piedra de Plata, where he’d seen old-growth trees as a child—ancient, gnarled things that carried the visible weight of age.

Toth had often heard farmers recalling the legend of Nacional cacao with deep pride. So when Pachard said he thought he might be able to lead Toth to several Nacional cacao trees tucked up in Piedra de Plata that had survived the blights, Toth was intrigued.

Pachard believed these trees might be the last surviving ancient Nacionals in coastal Ecuador.

Toth and Schweizer joined Pachard on a trek to Piedra de Plata to meet with growers who showed off cacao trees planted by their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, before the arrival of the diseases thought to have wiped out the trees in the early 1900s. It was a long and sweltering hike through tangles of undeveloped coastal forest. Toth and Schweizer hoped the difficult journey would pay off. Perhaps in part because of the valley’s isolation from the rest of the country, these trees survived the epidemics and may have even become resistant to the blight that killed off so many of their brothers, Toth said. When the expedition reached the trees, the trees looked right—so Toth and Schweizer decided to put them to the test in a laboratory.

The growing and grafting nursery
The growing and grafting nursery for Nacional cacao that TMA maintains in the Jama-Coaque Reserve. Johis Alarcón

The pair partnered with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund and Freddy Amores, a scientist at INIAP, the research institute of Ecuador’s Ministry of Agriculture, to analyze the DNA of 47 trees they’d found in Piedra de Plata. To their delight, nine proved to be 100 percent pure ancient Nacional—likely the only ones known in the country. The world’s greatest chocolate was alive in Ecuador.

But a new problem presented itself: These Nacionals at Piedra de Plata were at least 100 years old and approaching the end of their life span. Most would soon die, and few at this age would even be able to reproduce. “Like, they’re just ridiculously old,” Toth says.

So in 2018, TMA established an outdoor genetic bank nearby in the 2,000-plus-acre Jama-Coaque Reserve in Manabí, where seedlings can thrive. Working with the Agricultural Polytechnic School of Manabí, TMA began replicating ancient Nacional trees through a process known as grafting: The Jama-Coaque Reserve land already had some heirloom cacao planted decades ago, so TMA transplanted ancient Nacional stems onto the rootstock of those heritage trees to create clones of the rare trees.

Jerry Toth
Jerry Toth, co-founder of TMA and To’ak Chocolate, in the Jama-Coaque Reserve with some of those magic beans. Johis Alarcón

TMA successfully planted 189 clones within a special parcel of the Jama-Coaque Reserve that was protected from cross-pollination from other cacao varieties. (Cross-pollination would muddy the pure genetic waters, and TMA and To’ak wanted to retain the purity of Nacional.) Toth’s goal was having all of those 189 reproduce, sprouting their coveted yellow or orange pods. In the end, nearly all of them did so, and those that initially did not were regrafted or replanted. TMA continues to distribute their offspring to any local cacao grower who wants to help save this historic variety from extinction by creating a suitable market for Nacional. To build upon their success for the next generation, TMA is also training a group of farmers in their 20s in the nearby community of Camarones to become grafting experts themselves.

With careful grafting, Toth predicts that within three years, these young trees will provide enough cuttings to reproduce up to 5,000 pure Nacional seedlings each year.

Although farmers in Manabí have long expressed pride in the legacy of Nacional, newer, hybrid cacao varieties produce higher yields much more quickly. So getting farmers to cultivate the ancient seedlings, Toth knew, would require financial help to offset potential losses from a slower-growing, less-fruitful crop. Accordingly, To’ak pays at least three times the standard market rate for hybrid Nacional cacao, and TMA pays additional bridge payments of around $1,821 per acre over five years to farmers who agree to grow ancient Nacional and hybrid Nacional cacao, which produces less expensive but still-exalted chocolate. In turn, To’ak has become famous for producing some of the most expensive chocolate on the market, in one case $490 for a single 1.76-ounce bar. That big-ticket bar, and other confections of Nacional, are available online at To’ak’s website and through specialty retailers like Harrods and Caputo’s.

“Cacao growers here in Ecuador are used to being promised a lot of things from political groups, from the government, from private institutions,” Schweizer says. “Most of the time, they would be let down and become disappointed and frustrated.”

Carl Schweizer
Carl Schweizer, the Austrian co-founder of To’ak Chocolate, in his office in Quito, Ecuador. Johis Alarcón

Not so with the cacao project. Véronica Vaca, a farmer in Camarones, was among the growers to take TMA up on the challenge. “Everything is growing really well, because we’re giving the trees a lot of attention,” she says. “Having a company that we know will buy our cacao, at a really good price, makes me feel confident about it.”

Mariano Ortiz, another farmer from Camarones, says the quality speaks for itself. “We want to continue planting Nacional cacao because of the aroma and because of how good it is,” Ortiz says. He adds that the farmers will keep planting so that Nacional “doesn’t fall away.”   

TMA developed a plan to divide its plantings: 80 percent would be newer hybrids, and 20 percent ancient Nacional. Today, each participating farm receives regular seedlings of this precious heirloom cacao variety.

Carlos Vite
Carlos Vite, a farmer in Camarones, goes about the painstaking work of grafting in the community nursery. Johis Alarcón

Currently, 38 families are part of the program. The plan is to scale up to 200 farmers over the next two years. TMA oversees the management of the plants, provides the land, performs the grafting and distributes seedlings to farmers. But To’ak delivers another key element, offering a guaranteed market for the final product.

Meanwhile, TMA continues to work on its broader goal: reforestation, particularly along Ecuador’s ecologically delicate coast. In addition to planting cacao trees, TMA has been reintroducing and cultivating a wide variety of other fruit trees and native trees on depleted agricultural lands, forming the basis of the organization’s regenerative agroforestry program.

A To’ak chocolate bar
A To’ak chocolate bar with those rare cacao nibs—beans that have been pared or crushed—that make it so irresistible. Johis Alarcón

Farmers working with To’ak receive, per acre, around 49 native shade tree seedlings, 243 cacao seedlings and 121 banana cuttings in the first year. In the second year, they get replacements for any seedlings that didn’t take. The growers can sell dry Nacional for roughly $7,300 per metric ton—more than three times the global median for cacao. After covering the costs of harvest and transport, TMA reinvests in the program and then pays 83 percent of the gross directly to farmers.

“We are trying to replicate a forest,” Toth says. “This is more than cacao. It is regenerative ag forestry.”

The success of the TMA genetic seed bank gives hope to those seeking to preserve other endangered tree species the world over. There are now more than 840 seed banks around the globe. And last year in the United States, President Joe Biden issued an executive order that emphasized the critical role of old-growth trees in reforestation and climate mitigation efforts across the country, while directing his secretaries of the interior and agriculture to complete a full survey of old-growth forests on federal lands.

Workers at the To’ak factory
Workers at the To’ak factory in Quito pack chocolate bars. The inset designs are inspired by Ecuador’s geography. Johis Alarcón

Other chocolatiers are catching on, too. Already, TMA has two other companies expressing interest in purchasing the resulting ancient Nacional cacao: Mindo Chocolate Makers of Michigan and Nikoa, an Ecuadorean company. “I don’t think we will have a problem selling it,” Toth says. As for how people beyond Ecuador can help the ongoing resurrection of the world’s favorite chocolate, Toth says this problem has a surprisingly bite-size answer: Just eat it. Even if you can’t afford the $490 To’ak bar, the company has more modest options, and other chocolatiers in Ecuador are beginning to use Nacional varieties in more affordable blended products.

“It shouldn’t be a hard thing to ask people: Eat, and become connoisseurs of really good chocolate.”

Correction, September 8, 2023: A previous version of this article misstated the fee paid to cacao growers per acre, and the number of seedlings and cuttings they receive; these numbers have been updated. It also said that Ecuador’s Pacific Coast had lost 98 percent of its trees over the past century; it has been updated to reflect that, in fact, the region has lost 98 percent of its original forest cover over that period.

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