On the tracks of the famous Cacao nacional in Ecuador
from Gregor Sieböck
Friday morning. Landing approach to Quito. Clouds hang above the city but every now and again I can catch a glimpse of the city. I can discern the old part of town, the angel statue on the Panecillo, see the peak of the Pichincha volcano and suddenly all the images come rushing back. I used to live in Ecuador for over a year to work with street children; somehow the country became my home. And then, ten years ago, I arrived in Quito on foot... after tramping along the entire royal Inca road along the Andes, 3000 km of aloneness and wilderness! It's exciting to return to this place...
I am now facing a long journey; it shall lead me from Ecuador to Paraguay. Along the way I will visit cocoa cooperatives but I also want to meet "exotic" suppliers who grow maca, Brazil nuts or acai... and my final stop will be a sugar cane cooperative in Paraguay. In-between lie thousands of kilometres and I have no idea if this distance is even surmountable. I have heard of heavy flooding in the Amazon region of Bolivia, some farmers still haven't replied to my e-mail request regarding my visit and it is not yet clear if we will meet at all. Typically Latin America, everything is up in the air, a lot of trust is required to commit to the journey and then everything should work out!
I take lodgings in the Cafecito in the Mariscal district of Quito. It is a nice accommodation with a comfortable bar. Here I have celebrated for an entire night when I came to the end of my Inca road trek ten years ago - out of great gratitude for life! It is interesting to return to a place with so many memories and of course everything is different. The friends from back then have long since moved on: transience - the lot of the traveller. Again and again, being on the road shows me that there is no such thing as permanence and that holding on to the past would only cause sorrow. But de facto... reason knows about this but the heart still feels differently sometimes. And yet... it is magical to be back in Quito. The next morning, I continue by bus to Santo Domingo de los Colorados. I'm visiting friends there and I have also heard that there are some cocoa plantations nearby - though not one of them delivers to Zotter, I still feel the desire to once meet a producer who is not certified organic and fair-trade.
Cesar Reyes has a hacienda of 900 hectares a few kilometres outside of Santo Domingo de los Colorados, a large city in the coastal lowland of Ecuador. On a third of the area he has been growing Ecuador's famous Cacao Nacional for the past 12 years. Cesar talks a lot about organic cultivation, about chemicals being harmful to the flora and fauna and the possibility of handling pests without the use of chemicals. For example, the "Escobar de bruja" (the witch's broom disease) is best brought under control by regularly checking the cocoa plantation for infested branches. In a case of witch's broom disease, the branch of the cocoa tree begins to rot on the outer end and, with time, the disease spreads to the whole tree. However, if the damaged branch if cut off in time, then nothing happens. Furthermore, it helps if the trees aren't planted too close together and enough fresh air can circulate. This also reduces the fungal infestation of the cocoa beans. So the problem is primarily the greed for profit: if one plants too many cocoa trees in a tight space and if one wants to spend little money for the regular cultivation of the trees, then only the use of chemicals is left.
And why is Cesar Reyes still not certified organic? I want to know. He never cared about that, he says, and anyway, his cocoa beans sell well even without the organic certification because Cacao nacional is in great demand on the global market. This cocoa variety grows only in Ecuador and it used to be widely spread; but in the last few years it has been more and more often replaced with the profit-yielding CCN-51 cocoa: this is a special crossbreed of Criollo and Forastero beans, which has been grown by Homero Castro, a clever cocoa farmer in Ecuador, and has since spread across all of South America. Because they yield a harvest four times bigger than the original Criollo cocoa trees, the domestic trees are generally cut down and replaced with the new breed. However, CCN-51 has one big drawback: the acid content of the beans is significantly higher than that of Criollo cocoa and thus the beans have to ferment for up to eight days instead of 3 or 4 days; to reduce the high acid content. This, in turn, leads to the loss of precious aromatics due to the long fermentation and the cocoa beans end up tasting rather boring!
However, at the end of my visit to Cesar Reyes I finally realised why his agriculture is not certified organic. We visited a parcel of land on which he'd just planted young cocoa trees. Around the saplings the grass was burned and I asked why that was. Cesar replied: "Glyphosate" - but it is bio-degradable! That's when I realised that Cesar was deceiving himself because that just isn't true. From my degree course of environmental sciences at Lund University I know that glyphosate is a chemical spray with severe consequences for the health of people and the environment. Even though it could be replaced so easily: because it not only kills the grasses that grow around the cocoa trees. When the cocoa saplings are still small, they are at risk of being overgrown and superseded by the surrounding plants; but one would simply have to mow the grass around the trees - and only at the beginning of a cocoa tree's life cycle because once it is bigger, the grass no longer influences its growth. Scythe is the magic word: the grass would simply have to be mowed.
Having gained another new insight I travelled on: I'd already met Umberto Zambrano of the organic and fair-trade cocoa cooperative "Fortaleza del Valle" at the organic trade fair in Nuremberg. He had invited to stop by on my journey to South America to document the organic cultivation of Cacao Nacional.
The home of cocoa is the underbrush of the rain forests because in order to thrive, the "food of the gods" needs a tropically humid climate and the shade provided by higher neighbouring trees. Under the umbrella of the rain forest the cocoa fruit develops the best aroma. Cacao nacional, sometimes also traded as "Arriba", only grows in Ecuador and is considered one of the finest aroma cocoas in the world. It developed there autonomously and brought out various aroma traits. But Cacao nacional is superseded in many places by more productive, new breedings, which are cultivated on large, shadeless plantations - the forest and the aroma fall by the wayside. The cooperative Fortaleza del Valle opposes this trend and contributes with its project of growing only Cacao nacional of organic quality to preserving the Cacao nacional.
Depending on which other shade-providing trees are planted together with the Cacao nacional, the cocoa bean takes on the respective aromas, be they avocados, coffee, citrus fruits or nuts. The cocoa tree communicates with the neighbouring trees through the roots and thus exchanges information!
Inside the fruit, the beans are embedded in a mushy fruit pulp. The original peoples used palm leaves, which they laid out on the ground, to lay out the beans encased in the fruit pulp. After three to five days, the fruit pulp had become so warm that the beans had already started sprouting and the fruit pulp fermented. Nowadays the Cacao nacional is fermented in wooden crates. It remains in the first crate for 48 hours, then is filled into the next crate for 24 hours and is turned over during the transfer and finally, it rests for another 24 hours in another crate. During the fermentation process the fruit pulp liquefies into a vinegar-like substance, which is taken on by the cocoa bean. That is how important amino acids are created and the bean develops an intense chocolate flavour. If the cocoa is fermented for a shorter amount of time, the aromas of the cocoa are largely preserved. To subsequently develop even more intense nut aromas, the cocoa is spread out and dried in wooden crates after the fermentation process. Because not every consumer appreciates these distinct nut aromas, part of the cocoa beans are dried on a finely woven grid. Because the air can also dry the beans from below in this case, the drying process is significantly quicker than on the wooden boards.
The cooperative "Fortaleza del Valle" in the coastal lowlands of Ecuador has existed since 2005. Back then, it was founded as a cooperative with 60 members to process and market cocoa. Since then the cooperative has grown continuously and, in the meantime, already consists of 940 members. Thanks to the fair-trade premium of 200 USD per ton of sold cocoa, the cooperative takes on additional tasks that exceed marketing. Together with the farmers, the needs of the individual are analysed to find out how the cultivation, quality and production can be improved. The farmers are granted microcredits for investments, well-organised advanced training courses for organic cultivation and quality improvement are offered. For example, the cooperative employs 14 technicians who train the cooperative members in organic cultivation. At Christmas, every cooperative member gets a gift basket, there is medical care and if a farmer dies, his widow receives financial support of 400 USD. Fortaleza del Valle does not have its own school for the children because there are enough state schools in the area.
In addition, the farmers receive a premium of 300 USD per ton of sold organic cocoa. The average area per farmer is 2.6 hectares. The farmers obtain about 35 to 40 quintals of cocoa per hectare (a quintal is a bag weighing 100 pounds), if the harvest is particularly good, it can even be up to 48 quintals. For each quintal the farmer receives 52 USD. The cooperative as a whole produces a total of 600 tons of Cacao nacional per year, which makes it the best and most successful organic cooperative in Ecuador. The entire cocoa is organic and fair-trade certified; and Zotter buys 25 tons a year. Most of the export goes to Switzerland and to the US.
The check of the organic cultivation is performed by a total of 10 inspectors, who check all farmers 1 - 2 times a year. If a farmer gets caught using chemicals, he is suspended for three years and is then allowed to produce again under strict control. If he gets caused using chemical fertilisers and sprays again, however, he is expelled from the cooperative entirely.
Umberto Zabrano, head of Fortaleza del Valle, is a sociable guy. His eyes begin to sparkle when he talks enthusiastically about his Cacao nacional and about the advantages of organic cultivation. One thing is obvious: he lives his dream and carries the message of sustainable farming not only into the world but also encourages more and more farmers in the area to farm organically. Josef Zotter has probably found the best partner in Ecuador when it comes to obtaining Cacao nacional of top quality. What does Cacao nacional taste like? You had best try a wonderful Labooko with Ecuadorian jungle cocoa and take your time to experience all the aromas as the wonderful piece of chocolate melts on your tongue. "Heaven, I am in heaven, and my heart beats so that I can hardly speak, and I seem to find the happiness I seek. When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek..." These famous lines from Ella Fitzgerald's Cheek to Cheek come to mind when I think of this amazing chocolate. Thank you, Berto and Josef!