MANILA -- On the Philippine island of Mindanao, a cacao farm recently began growing a rare variety. A Japanese businessman, who has settled in the Southeast Asian country for more than 30 years, discovered the remnants of the variety, which is believed to have been brought to the island during the Spanish colonial era via Mexico centuries ago.
The Criollo is a highly valued cacao bean, which accounts for only 5% of the total world cacao production. The rare cacao beans could lead to a new and significant industry on the island.
Tracing local folk tales and rumors about Criollo's existence, Keizo Muto, 61, explored the island's mountain trails and eventually discovered the variety, which had survived for hundreds of years, deep in the dense forest near Davao, the largest city on the island.
Located slightly north of the equator, the tropical island has ideal conditions for producing cacao beans, with lots of sunshine all year round. In addition, Mindanao largely escapes the frequent typhoons in the area.
Muto and his partners have cleared the jungle at a site a two-hour drive from Davao, and last year planted some 3,000 cacao seedlings, including Criollo, there. Muto said they will be able to harvest the beans in about four years.
The business aims to localize the entire process of cacao beans production on the island, including the harvesting and roasting of the beans, with help from people living nearby.
Criollo is more difficult to grow than other cacao varieties due to its vulnerability to disease. Because of its rich and mellow aroma, Criollo should become highly valued as a key ingredient for luxury chocolates. "I want to make cacao production a specialty for Davao," Muto said.
Links between Japan and Davao date back to before World War II, when nearly 20,000 Japanese lived in the city, growing and trading Manila hemp. These Japanese returned to Japan after the war, but some of their children and descendants remained, endured some hard times, still live there.
After gaining independence from the Spanish in the late 19th century, the island nation was thrown into political turmoil, and ever since has lagged behind the development of other countries. In the 1970s and later, Mindanao became a battlefield in the country's civil war, which delayed development of the island and kept farm villages in poverty.
Muto moved to the Philippines initially to launch a Manila hemp business there, encouraged by advice from his older brother, who passed away six years ago. The Japanese businessman has also helped the Japanese International Cooperation Agency and other organizations conduct on-site research.
With his efforts to grow the Criollo variety there, he hopes to create local jobs and strengthen the ties between the two countries. At present, he is scouting out locations to use for expanding the cacao plantation on the island. An increasing number of locals are eager to work on his cacao farms, Muto said.