- visiting the old jungle cocoa trees
from Gregor Sieböck
They still exist, the gnarly cocoa trees amidst the jungle giants of the rain forest, the cocoa famers who are not only after the revenue of the trees but above all produce top cocoa of extraordinary quality while simply leaving large expanses of their growing area untouched, so that rare animal breeds can also have their habitat. And since, for me, my chocolate world trip was mainly about finding out about the consciousness with which the organic farmers cultivate their farms and lead their personal lives, it was of course particularly interesting to meet these cocoa farmers. They are primarily concerned with leading a life in harmony with the Earth - a happy life beyond economic revenue numbers - and with the enjoyment of life... I thought that was exciting and thus had absolutely no doubt as to whether or not going to the considerable length of making this journey would be worth it. Because the trip to Tingo Maria is by no means easy. Until a few years ago, the region south of Tarapoto to Tingo Maria was one of Peru's main cultivation areas for coca. The Lonely Planet travel guide still advises against travelling in this region and, aside from that one warning, offers no other advise whatsoever about what to expect along this route: apart from: it is dangerous and thus best travelled by plane. But Michael and I preferred the overland route to Tingo Maria. Between Juanjui and Tocache, in the Blue Mountains, it felt the most dangerous. There are still groups of self-defence militia who guard the road with guns and control the traffic. They are villagers who are responsible for the security of the road and stop every car. They usually receive a small contribution from the driver and he can then continue on his way. Since the existence of the self-defence militia, the attacks on the road have been on the decline; but no one can guarantee that highwaymen don't still lie in wait in the mountains. They usually attack very quickly, wait behind a blind bend, stop the car, do the mugging and then disappear into the jungle as quickly as they have appeared. Well, long story short, nothing happened to us, we arrived in Tingo Maria safe and sound and then continued on our journey unimpeded; although a new obstacle was waiting for us there: because the next stop after Tingo Maria was the Andean highlands and in only a five-hour-drive, one goes from an altitude of 670 to 4,500 metres... but Michael and I also mastered this challenge... because many limitations begin in the head and, as Henry Ford eloquently put it: "If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." But now let's finally get to the cocoa farmers of Tingo Maria...
Peru's oldest cooperative, Naranjillo, has 3,500 cooperative members and produces organic cocoa and organic coffee in the force field of the Andes and the Amazonian lowlands. Vilsic, the head of the cooperative, had invited us. We had met him at the organic trade fair in Nuremberg and Vilsic had said: "Why don't you stop by? Our cocoa trees grow amidst the jungles and I would like to show you the treasures of the Amazon." No sooner said than done.
When Michael and I arrived in Tinga Maria, there was a large celebration going on in the inner courtyard of the Naranjillo cooperative. Vilsic greeted us beaming with joy and said: "Celebrate with us! There is food and drink, just make yourselves at home." After we'd enjoyed a piece of chocolate cake and a glass of sparkling wine, Vilsic told about Naranjillo and his dreams: "Naranjillo has existed for 50 years but 2013 was a real year of crisis. At the beginning of the year we had 5,000 cooperative members, at the end of the year only 3,500 were left. Many of them used to be coca farmers and simply wanted to make a quick profit; but then they realised that they didn't want to back Naranjillo's philosophy - which is producing organic cocoa of top quality. At the same time, I started to make the cocoa farmers understand what a great treasure the old cocoa trees are and that it would be a shame to replace them with modern breedings. Of course cacao nativo trees yield only half, at best, of what new varieties such as CCN 51 ( this is a special cross-breed between Criollo and Forastero beans that was created by Homero Castro, a clever cocoa farmer in Ecuador, and which has since then spread all over South America.) yield, but the flavour of the cocoa beans...!" Vilsic started doting and his eyes began to sparkle... he continued: "And anyway, it's about so much more than just earnings, it's about living in harmony with the Earth and nature. Tomorrow I will show you the jungle trees... we will take a trip together... you'll be amazed!"
The party was in full swing and the Naranjillo employees celebrated the breakthrough that the cooperative had made it through the crisis year and can now look towards the future with new strength. Vilsic also told us about a few improvements he implemented: for a few weeks they have had free medical care for all cooperative members. Furthermore, he was just in the middle of establishing a shop for the cooperative members, where they could inexpensively buy organic fertilisers and other products for daily use. The cooperative bought large quantities of basic foods and then, just like a food co-op, passed them on to the members cheaper.
In Tingo Maria, Michael and I found accommodation in a jungle lodge at the edge of town and first had to recover from the exertions of our trip. In the garden around our hut we could watch alpine hares, monkeys jumped from tree branch to tree branch and colourful parrots enchanted us with their cheerful sight. We enjoyed a wonderful dinner with yuca (similar to manioc), plantains and fresh tomatoes. We also had freshly squeezed passion fruit and pineapple juice - we lived in paradise! The next day, we started our trip with Vilsic to the cocoa farmers in the jungle well rested.
Don César only has one tooth left; he is older than his cocoa trees, which he planted 60 years ago. He collected the seedlings from the jungle and from the riverbanks and replanted them on his plot. When he stands before his trees, his eyes begin to shine and he is grateful for his gifts from Mother Earth: the colourful cocoa fruit that hang in the trees! Amidst the trees, chickens are looking for food and enjoy their life in freedom! Don César loves chocolate. He does everything himself, the harvest, the fermentation of the cocoa beans, which he only ferments for 2 - 4 days because of their low acid content and to preserve their nutty aromas, the drying and the making of the chocolate. "My chocolate is wonderful. It has an amazing aroma and contains a lot of fat. When I travel to Lima, it is a lot colder there then here in the jungle, but I still don't wear a jacket when I'm there because the fat of the chocolate warms me from the inside." The hint of a smile brightens his face when he talks about his cocoa trees. He stops at one of the trees and gently touches one of the ripe cocoa fruit. He stays still without saying a word and it seems as if Don César is talking to the tree - silence... yes, it is a sacred moment! Only rarely have I met a farmer who was so connected with his trees and nature.
Then Don César looks up at the sky, stays for another little while, looks again, doesn't speak a word - silence. Earth - man - cosmos: there is a connection, a feeling of being one, that Don César knows about and that he incorporated into his life but that he doesn't talk about. The farewell is heartfelt, we look into each other's eyes, say "Adíos y que le vaya muy bien," and then we move on and visit his neighbour: Santiago. His cocoa trees grow underneath the jungle giants. The plot is only 2 hectares large and lies within the borders of the national park of Tingo Maria. His cocoa trees grow widely spread in the jungle. Santiago doesn't need any regulations to know how to cultivate land within the national park because he is part of the forest and of nature. He talks even less than Don César, wears a brown-green shirt and thus blends perfectly into the flora. Santiago lives in a perfect symbiosis between man and nature and has a small wooden cottage in the middle of his plot, where he lives. Even this is wonderfully integrated into nature and hardly stands out from its surroundings. Santiago is part of the jungle - everything is one; a unity that I have never before seen in a farmer!
Don Lucho's plot at the edge of town of Tingo Maria is 14 hectares large. He cultivates it together with Paula, his mother. Paula takes a lot of work off his hands while Luis is also active in the management of Naranjillo, on the side. They run a family business together that reaches far beyond their own family, because they, too, include nature in their work. The free-living titis are also part of the family - and the frailecillo monkeys, for whom Lucho and Paula leave four hectares of their plot uncultivated and in wilderness. They cultivate the remaining 10 hectares in the form of a "Sistemas agroforestal" - a symbiosis between agriculture and jungle. Again, the cocoa trees grow amidst the jungle, whereas one hectare of their plot is reserved for research work. Here they have planted the modern CCN 51 cocoa trees and ascertain how much cadmium the trees take in. The roots of the very fruitful CCN 51 trees reach a lot further down into the earth than the roots of the native cocoa trees and thus soak up a lot more cadmium from the ground, which then builds up in the cocoa beans.
The cacao nativo or cacao criollo has a yield per hectare of 700 to 800 kilograms, in contrast to the up to 2.5 tons of the CCN 51 trees. If the farmer takes good care of the trees, keeps an eye on them and makes sure that the forest is sufficiently ventilated to prevent diseases ( Diseases that can befall a cocoa tree are the witch's broom disease (escobar de bruja), brown rot and Pudricíon Parda (Marrón). The witch's broom disease spreads from the leaves of the cocoa trees across the branches to the stem and can kill off the entire tree if the affected branches are not cut off in time. Brown rot is a fungal disease that covers the cocoa fruit like a white powder and Pudricíon Parda attacks the fruit, so that they turn brown and die off. All these diseases can be prevented by natural means: by checking the trees regularly and cutting off affected branches or fruit and by allowing enough air circulation in the cocoa forest, i.e. not planting the cocoa trees too close together), the yield of the native cocoa trees can, in exceptional cases, be increased to one ton per hectare. But that is it. The farmers then receive a price that is about 30 % higher (400 to 500 USD per ton) for these cocoa beans, but this added value does not compensate for the loss resulting from the lower yields. For this reason, some farmers cut down the old cocoa trees and replace them with CCN 51 trees. Vilsic, the head of Naranjillo, has stopped this process in 2013 and has made it his job's top priority to preserve these trees and the jungle plantations. He works with customers such as Josef Zotter, who are prepared to pay more money for the cocoa beans of the jungle trees; to give the farmers who are mainly focused on profit an incentive to not cut them down. Don César, Santiago and Lucho would never fell their trees anyway because their lives have a very different orientation. Lucho tells me with zest that he once landed in Tingo Maria with an airplane and noticed from above that his jungle was the only large green spot of land in the suburbs of Tingo Maria - and it is going to stay this way! Because that is worth a whole lot more than a larger profit!