Ilhéus was a sleepy place until cacao was introduced into the region from Belém in 1881. With the sugar plantations in the doldrums, impoverished agricultural workers and freed or escaped slaves flocked from all over the Northeast to the hills surrounding Ilhéus to participate in the new boom: cacao, known as the ouro branco (white gold) of Brazil.
Sudden, lawless and violent, the scramble to plant cacao displayed all the characteristics of a gold rush. When the dust settled, the land and power belonged to a few ruthless coroneis (so-called ‘colonels’) and their hired guns. The landless were left to work, and usually live, on the fazendas (plantations), where they were subjected to a harsh and paternalistic labor system. This history is graphically told by Amado, who grew up on a cacao plantation, in his book Terras do Sem Fim (published in English as The Violent Land).
In the early 1990s, the vassoura de bruxa (witch’s broom) disease left cacao trees shriveled and unable to bear fruit, hurting the area’s economy dramatically. Though the disease persists to this day, you can still see cacao fazendas and rural workers like those Amado described throughout the lush, tropical hills.