Leonie Milner explores the chocolatales of Bolivia in search of wild cacao.
Beautiful, small wild Bolivian cocoa beans. What a thing. The rainforest of the Beni Department, the North Eastern region of Bolivia, had just become my home away from home.
The ‘chocolatales’ of Beni are masses of land dense with wild growing cacao. They are ancient ‘cocoa islands’ encircled by trenches, trenches dug out by the hands of a pre-Columbian civilization. Here I felt like I was standing at the starting line, about to explore chocolate from the very beginning.
Hacienda Tranquilidad was built at the heart of a chocolatale approximately ten years ago and is at the center of the fine wild harvest in Bolivia. Started by Agricultural Economist and founder of Rainforest Exquisite Products S.A. (REPSA), Volker Lehmann with an objectve to increase the quality of the entire harvest process, thus ensuring a better result for all concerned.
Tranquilidad To Trinidad
The trees of the chocolatales are incredible; ancient specimens with twisted trunks pockmarked and knuckled from harvests past. They typically produce ripe pods annually between November and March. Note that I said ‘typically’, because as with anything wild, this harvest is an unpredictable creature. This year the trees did not produce enough to warrant a four month stay in Tranquilidad so I packed my bag and booked my seat on the four-seater Cesna that would take me back over the savanna to La Santísima Trinidad, the capital of Beni.
A hazy Amazonian town, dominated by motorbikes, Trinidad is the setting for REPSA’S collection house, where all beans are weighed, recorded and stored, before moving onto the somewhat cooler climate of La Paz, prior to shipping to Switzerland. I spent many hours on the roof of this house, drying beans and watching nervously for any incoming storms, tarpaulin in hand – it is surprising how fast you can bolt up three stories of stairs in the midday heat when cloudy skies roll in. By night I slept here too. It became as normal as the daily cold showers and the sound of reggae-tron that spilt through the streets.
The wild Bolivian beans are small – almost half the size of their cultivated brothers and genetically independent from other known cacaos. It is because of their size that the international chocolate market initially turned them away, maybe perceiving them inferior. One objection was cost. The machinery used to process them would have to be re-calibrated, maybe even re-designed to allow for their smaller form. Would it be worth it?
It turns out it was, with Felchlin’s Cru Sauvage, to give the finished chocolate it’s true name, winning numerous accolades for it’s rich, honeyed fruit tones and un-tampered flavour.
Trinidad To TIPNIS
They told me, ‘We will go tomorrow.’ And, ‘No, We will go tomorrow.’ ‘Ok, the boat will be fixed by tonight and we will go tomorrow.’ ‘The boat is not fixed yet but we will go tomorrow.’ ‘Tomorrow.’ In South America ‘tomorrow’ could mean anytime, apart from tomorrow. And then we went…
Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure [TIPNIS], has been recognised as protected indigenous territory since 1990. The people living within its colossal 1,091,656 hectares belong to the Tsimané, Yuracaré, and Mojeño-Trinitario peoples. Spanning between the Cochabamba and Beni Departments of Bolivia, it is land wild and rich with chocolatales. Taking three days travel by boat from Trinidad this park is somewhat remote.
We had just arrived in TIPNIS territory to buy chocolate, or, more precisely cacao – dry beans by the Arroba (11.5kg). It is an annual trip for REPSA but a first for me and I soon realised how important the wild cacao harvest is to these communities.
Rising Prices, Rising Living Standards
It is of interest to note, and admire, that the price paid for the wild beans has risen over 300% in the ten years that REPSA has been buying in this area: £5.50-6.50 per Arroba in 2002, to the current £24 – £25 paid now. An impressive rise brought about by a competitive and growing market. This is one of the reasons we pay good money for a nice bar of chocolate.
The sale of cacao doesn’t just benefit the capital though. It also means boats arriving from Trinidad, fully stocked with provisions of rice, flour, sugar, coca, cigarettes etc, all for sale or to exchange for a couple of arrobas of beans. It brings some excitement too – a break in routine; I felt that.
The people appear healthier than their city dwelling contemporaries. Fit and lean and it never felt truer that we all tend to lead excessive lives in comparison. It did give me an appreciation however for those everyday things we do have in reach that allow us to develop as healthy human beings; a standard of education, which is often absent on the river, and a source of calcium, which was never there in the first place, resulting in most adults having all but one tooth left. The incredible sugar consumption doesn’t help matters. You can travel to the most remote parts of this world and people will still know and desire Coca Cola – perversely impressive.
One community we visited had settled about 200 years ago on the banks of a secluded Laguna, leading off from the Isiboro River. It is called San Pablo and is fairly well developed – the people have a generator and a basic medical facility. The forest was dappled with bright yellow ripe pods and the riverfront clearings were lined with old dugouts full of fermenting beans. Traditional methods, passed down and preserved. Any excess pulp that came off the beans each day was mixed with water and made into juice for dinner each evening. Emapenadas and cacao juice. Perfect.
If you have heard of TIPNIS at all, it is most likely in connection with the contentious subject of a highway being laid through it, linking directly the Departments of Cochabamba and Beni for the first time. A major concern about the impact of the road is it’s contribution to de-forestation but projected estimates and percentages are conflicting and ambiguous.
By the fourth day of traveling, the boat was heavy and full: 272.5 Arrobas; a mountain of sacks filled with beans dried by the Beniano sun and smelling unbelievably good. I remember thinking that if these beans smelt this good now, so plummy and raisin-like, how must this yield taste as finished bars?
During my six months in Bolivia, I contemplated a recurring theme. The discourse surrounding the harvest of wild cacao and to be honest cacao in general, can be colourful and romantic – I even slip into that trap at times. With the Bolivian harvest some portray the ‘wild cacao hunters’ and their dug-out canoes in a mysterious and hyperbolic way. The harvest is exotic by it’s defining terms and it is far away from it’s consumer base, that is undeniable. I also accept that storytelling plays a major role in the marketing of products, especially in the context of the food industry. But these people are, in the simplest terms, farmers, tending to their crops, not dissimilar from the men and women farming rice and maize. I suppose my fear is that we become caught up in the stories and detach from the reality: this reality being that we are linked to these people each time we choose a bar of chocolate.
The story of wild cacao in Bolivia is incredible but even more so when you strip back the lines about canoes and magical islands. The vision of Volker Lehmann to get this bean onto the international market and in the process raising the price paid to these people for their work is astonishing. Most impressive of all is that these trees are still bearing exceptional fruits that contribute towards making a sincerely unique chocolate, re-enforcing the importance and value of all non-timber products to come out of the forest.
You can read more about Leonie’s adventures on her blog.
- Filed under bolivia.