Agriculture dominates 40% of terrestrial environments, producing food and products that sustain human life but replacing highly-biodiverse habitats. As demand for food increases from changing diets and increased population, it falls on scientists and farmers to find ways to balance biodiversity conservation with agricultural intensification. Win-wins like saving natural habitat that exports pest control agents or implementing no-till systems that increase soil biodiversity and water retention are still being uncovered. Yet, research has primarily focused on crops outside of their native range which limits understanding of interaction-based ecosystem services like pollination.
Cacao, a cash crop grown primarily by small-holder farmers to diversify their livelihoods, has been gaining research momentum recently. Studies from Ghana and Indonesia have shown proximity to natural landscapes, like primary rainforest, does not increase pollination services to cacao. However, little research has been done within the Upper Amazon Basin, the native range of T. cacao.
We examined how different landscape contexts affected pollination dynamics on cacao farms in Ecuador. We used pollen limitation as our measure of pollination service, comparing hand pollination treatments with open pollination treatments in fields surrounded by four different landscape contexts (agricultural, forest fragment adjacent, forest reserve adjacent, and forest reserve embedded).
While natural areas did not increase pollination rates nor decrease pollen limitation, proximity to natural areas did increase fruit set from hand pollination. Our results suggest natural areas might be providing resources other than pollinators to cacao farms. More study is needed to know what types of resources are being exporting to fields and how to increase pollination through management strategies instead of the protection of natural areas.