- a success story from the jungle of Peru
from Gregor Sieböck
Coca is a sacred plant: the Incas offered up coca leaves and used them for rituals in honour of Pachamama, Mother Earth. Even today they are used for ritual purposes in the Andes and the chewing of coca leaves is a wonderful natural remedy to prevent altitude sickness. I drank coca tea in Ecuador to ascend safely and full of concentration to almost 6,000 metres - instead of clouding the spirit, coca tea opens the consciousness and gives spiritual clarity. Mountains of coca leaves tower in the Andean markets of Peru and are offered for sale but in the past decades, coca has also been used for the production of cocaine in the western world. The miracle drug has gained entry into the leadership of economy and politics to better meet, with its support, the excesses of the capitalistic economic system. Instead of changing the system at the root, the USA has decided to fight the symptoms. The US anti-drug unit DEA not only fights against the processing and the trading of this drug, but also increasingly the cultivation of the sacred coca plant by spraying the coca fields with toxic chemicals from the air to destroy the harvest, or by tyrannising the coca farmers and intimidating them with military force.
Until 2005, coca was cultivated in the entire valley of San Ramon, near the town Juanjui in the Amazon region of Peru, to then be processed into cocaine. While, as a result, the farmers had a better income and could slowly escape the widespread poverty, they also suffered under the military repressions of the national and international anti-drug units. The military abducted the farmers and family fathers ended up in prisons.
In this brutal environment, the farmer Ramiro Castillo had a vision as early as 1995: "cocoa instead of cocaine" was his dream. He founded the cocoa cooperative ACOPAGRO in the province of San Martin. He placed enthusiasm and love at the heart of Acopagro and their central slogan became "Acopagro helps you to live your dreams." From the very beginning, the cooperative was much more than a cooperative society that marketed cocoa; it was rather carried by the joy of living. That hasn't changed until today, even though in the meantime, more than 2,000 farmers have joined - as a result, the coca cultivation in the region has declined by 90% and continues to decline further every year! Ramiro still works as a cocoa farmer in the cooperative even though he transferred leadership to Don Gonzalo. Gonzalo has been running Acopagro for 17 years now and is, with his 45 years of age, the oldest staff member in the management department. Most employees are young; this ensures that the cooperative is open to change and goes with the new spirit of the time.
Acopagro works on improving the living conditions of the cooperative members: be it by designing the living situation more comfortably, or by helping to make sure their basic needs for water supply, waste water and health care are met.
In addition, school education for the children is guaranteed.
In the beginning, the cooperative sold 50 tons of cocoa beans a year; today it is 5,200 tons. The goods are shipped primarily to Switzerland, Germany, Italy, France, Austria, the US and to Australia. Acopagro has already become Peru's second largest cocoa exporter and it is Don Ramiro's vision to become the best in the world in terms of cocoa bean quality. Today the cooperative is already in fifth place worldwide. This is why they have now worked out a special technique for the fermentation, with the aid of which they can reduce the acid content of the cocoa to 1 %. As early as 1992, even before he founded Acopagro, Don Ramiro had already converted his 2 hectares large cocoa plot at the edge of the Rio Abiseo national park to organic cultivation. The wilderness area of the national park creates a perfect climate for the cultivation of cocoa, with a wonderful balance of rainfall and sunshine. Ramiro says that cocoa does perfectly well without chemicals; one only as to encourage the pollination of the cocoa trees by bees and ants.
Fair trade lends great support to the small farmers; after all, the cooperative receives a fair-trade premium of 200 USD per ton of sold cocoa. This is used for paying for the certification of the organic cultivation, for offering technical advanced training classes and for providing the farmers with social assistance regarding the education of their children and health care (such as, e.g., glasses for visually impaired farmers). Furthermore, the cooperative grants microcredits for an amount between 100 to 3,000 USD. Unlike the fair-trade premium, the premium for the organic cultivation is paid out directly to the farmers.
Don Ramiro planted primarily cocoa of the CCN 51 variety on his plot (the Ecuadorian clone made from Forastero and Crillo cocoa). The mother stem is heat and pest resistant and, on it, branches of especially aromatic cocoa varieties are planted. This continuously improves the quality of the cocoa's aroma. Because these cocoa beans have a high acid content, they have to be fermented for 7 or 8 days to reduce it to 1 %. The cocoa loses aromatics during fermentation and that is why Don Ramiro strives to plant cocoa that is as aromatic as possible. We take a walk through his cocoa garden and again and again he harvests fresh cocoa fruit and lets Michael and me try them. Some of them taste like juicy lemons, others like oranges, grapes or nuts, and still others have an especially fruity taste, that can no longer be explained with words. Don Ramiro's cocoa beans are a work of art!
He shows us the fermentation: together with the white cocoa pulp (also called placenta), the cocoa beans are fermented in a large wooden crate. Within the first 48 hours, the temperature in the crate rises to 33 degrees Celsius and the bacteria turn the sugar into alcohol, which further raises the temperature. After that, the beans are transferred to a second box to mix them thoroughly. They stay in this wooden crate for 24 hours and the temperature rises to 43 degrees Celsius, whereby the vinegar is turned into alcohol. A burlap sack covers the 1st, 2nd and 3rd wooden crate to prevent too much heat from escaping. The cocoa beans stay for another 24 hours in the 3rd wooden crate, whereby the temperatures rise to 48 degrees Celsius. In the fourth box, the temperature goes as high as 49 to 51 degrees Celsius, whereby the burlap sack is removed so that the acid can escape. After that, the cocoa beans are again transferred to a fifth, sixth and seventh box, where they remain for another 24 hours each. The temperature falls backs to 45 degrees Celsius. At the beginning of the fermentation, the cocoa beans were purple, now they have turned a light brown colour.
After fermentation, the beans are spread out to dry for 5 to 6 days to reduce the moisture content to 6 to 7 %. After that, the cocoa beans are delivered to the central warehouse in Juanjui, where they undergo another thorough quality check before they are exported.
At the end of our tour, Don Ramiro serves a cup of hot chocolate; without milk, however, only with water, just as the Mayas used to drink it. Ramiro roasted the cocoa beans over the fire at very low temperatures and afterwards ground them by hand. The chocolate tastes heavenly and I can feel that Don Ramiro has worked all his dreams and his love for cocoa into it. He smiles when I tell him this...