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Chocolate: A Jungle Story

May your life be filled, as mine has been, with love and laughter; and remember, when things are rough all you need is … chocolate. — Geraldine Solon, Chocolicious

Like so many others I’ve long loved chocolate — especially a good dark chocolate — for a special occasion. Chocolate. Even the word is delicious. It’s a treat, an exception, a slightly guilty but always deeply pleasurable indulgence. So often it is a declaration of love, for another or for oneself. For years I’ve smiled walking by all the elegantly presented chocolate bars in the grocery, even if I didn’t buy any on a particular day. Popping into a specialty chocolate shop has always been a treat, even if not imbibing. Just being around chocolate feels good. It is a mood enhancer that remains largely inexplicable.

By Kris Davidson. Road to Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. Flor del Bosque is one of the communities working with Asociacíon Tsatsayaku in cacao production. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is made up of 140 Kichwa and mestizo families from 13 different communities, and its mission is to produce quality cacao that provides a fair price for their members.
By Kris Davidson. Road to Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. Flor del Bosque is one of the communities working with Asociacíon Tsatsayaku in cacao production. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is made up of 140 Kichwa and mestizo families from 13 different communities, and its mission is to produce quality cacao that provides a fair price for their members.

I was beyond thrilled with National Geographic Traveller (UK edition) commissioned me to photograph a cacao harvest deep in the Amazonian jungle in Ecuador this past March in conjunction with Sumak Travel, an organization known for crafting original sustainable tours for the caring, curious traveler. Months later as I reflect on this adventure I must say that it remains one of my favorite assignments to date.

The red-eye flight was strenuous (as they always are) but touching down in Quito at sunrise was spectacular. Unruly winds rocked the plane on descent, a stressful occurrence offset by golden rays of sunlight, stretching like sleepy arms over the mountain tops. Quito sits at a lofty 2820 M (9252 feet) above sea level and as such, has the distinction of being the highest capital city in the world. This is a significant feature that contributes to Ecuador’s unique cacao profile — the country is comprised of a series of microclimates. After all, Ecuador is home to both the soaring Andes and the fertile Amazon. What ecological richness. One senses the environmental richness on the drive down from the mountain to the Amazon basin — winding roads, low clouds and exquisite waterfalls at every turn — all in a 3.5 hour drive. Subtle fluctuations in elevation (and variance in mountain angle and sea angle) constantly introduce new prospects for life. The biodiversity in this country remains unparalleled. The non-profit Biodiversity Group (www.biodiversitygroup.org) has documented 10,000 animals in the Ecuadorian rainforests, including the discovery of 30 species previously unknown to science. It’s this thriving place — teeming with life — where our chocolate story begins.

Photos by Kris Davidson. TOP LEFT: American exchange student Madie McKay photographed at Oro y Luna Lodge in in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. She is working on a school research project about cacoa and chocolate production with Asociacíon Tsatsayaku. TOP RIGHT: Macaws in the jungle at Oro y Luna Lodge in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. BOTTOM RIGHT: Angel Tapuy harvesting cacao in Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. BOTTOM LEFT: Ripe cacao pods ready for harvesting.
Photos by Kris Davidson. TOP LEFT: American exchange student Madie McKay photographed at Oro y Luna Lodge in in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. She is working on a school research project about cacoa and chocolate production with Asociacíon Tsatsayaku. TOP RIGHT: Macaws in the jungle at Oro y Luna Lodge in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. BOTTOM RIGHT: Angel Tapuy harvesting cacao in Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. BOTTOM LEFT: Ripe cacao pods ready for harvesting.
Photos by Kris Davidson. LEFT: Ines Sabina Alvarado Tanguila and Karina Alexandra Alvarado Alvarado in the jungle harvesting cacao in Santa Barbara, a remote community along Rio Arajuno. MIDDLE: Man slicing open a cacao pod in the junle in Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. The cacao beans are extracted from the pod at the site of the harvest to avoid carrying the extra weight of the pod shell. RIGHT: Bolivar Patricio Andy Aquinta (who works for Pacari) in Santa Rita, Ecuador.
Photos by Kris Davidson. LEFT: Ines Sabina Alvarado Tanguila and Karina Alexandra Alvarado Alvarado in the jungle harvesting cacao in Santa Barbara, a remote community along Rio Arajuno. MIDDLE: Man slicing open a cacao pod in the junle in Flor del Bosque, a farmer community in the jungle near Julio Arosemana Tola, Ecuador. The cacao beans are extracted from the pod at the site of the harvest to avoid carrying the extra weight of the pod shell. RIGHT: Bolivar Patricio Andy Aquinta (who works for Pacari) in Santa Rita, Ecuador.

Cacao production is a big business — today about 50 million people worldwide make a living in cultivating and harvesting cacao. But it’s a tricky tree, not thriving in structured farm settings. The tree prefers the rich diversity of the wild jungle. In Ecuador, cacao harvesters tend to the trees on “chakras.” Chakra is a Kichwa word that roughly translates to the practice of sustainable agroforestry wherein subsistence crops (yucca/manioc, vegetables) are grown alongside tree crops (such as cacao, guayusa, banana and coffee) and medicinal plants. Often these family plots are remote, deep in the jungle. As such, harvesting the cacao is a laborious process. Consider the Kallari workers along the Rio Arajuno, a community that does not have automobile access, running water or electrity. The workers hike down muddy trails to tend to the cacao, pushing dugout canoes down river, and/or sharing the cost of hiring a canoe with an outboard motor to transit the precious harvest. Every other week, or once a week during the peak harvest, workers harvest and carry nearly 50,000 pounds of cacao to locations where Kallari staff buy the beans and then transit them to the fermentation boxes. Kallari is unique in that 100% of the company profits go to the workers.

Generally, the economics of cacao and the resulting chocolate is a thornier tale. As the cacao emerges from the jungle, it enters into a vast financial structure, in which cacao is broadly purchased as commodity futures. Daniel A. Gross details the cacao marketplace in an article in Smithsonian: “Almost all of the world’s cocoa is grown in developing countries and consumed by industrialized countries. From the port cities, global businesses start to dip their fingers in the cocoa jar. Middle men sell to international trading companies like Cargill and ADM, which ship the beans to port cities like Philadelphia and Rotterdam. The cocoa beans are still many steps away from becoming chocolate, but by this point, they’ve entered the financial world.”  Read more about the cacao market here: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/economics-chocolate-180954224/#QQKCxI0BzlHljmDm.99

Photos by Kris Davidson. Scenes from the jungle in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
Photos by Kris Davidson. Scenes from the jungle in the Ecuadorian Amazon.

Somewhere between the jungle and the well-lit aisle in Whole Foods, the cacao harvesters often get lost in the shuffle. And yet, for me, I’ll never take another bite of chocolate without thinking of these faces again. Even as many of the cacao harvesters live in poverty, they have tremendous beauty in their lives, too. My favorite moments from this trip was running around in the jungle with the children. As I gingerly picked my way through the jungle floor, their laughter rang out overhead and all around, always a step ahead with a mischievous smiles in their Eden. Swimming in the river after a long day of harvesting in Flor del Bosque was magical — they all started to sing together, cool water soothing us all.

Photo by Kris Davidson. Family and friends visiting by candlelight in Santa Barbara, a remote cacao harvesting community along Rio Arajuno. Kallari is a chocolate-making organization based in Ecuador that is committed to community viability and economic growth, through knowledge sharing, the preservation of Kichwa cultural traditions and natural resource conservation. Kallari is dedicated to the community and offers "homestays" with cacao harvesters as a part of an educational tour about cacao.
Photo by Kris Davidson. Family and friends visiting by candlelight in Santa Barbara, a remote cacao harvesting community along Rio Arajuno. Kallari is a chocolate-making organization based in Ecuador that is committed to community viability and economic growth, through knowledge sharing, the preservation of Kichwa cultural traditions and natural resource conservation. Kallari is dedicated to the community and offers “homestays” with cacao harvesters as a part of an educational tour about cacao.
Photo by Kris Davidson. Gabriel Bartolo Salvado Tapuy Grefa, a shaman, demonstrates how the Kichwa "clean" a person's aura using leaves from the jungle in Santa Barbara, a remote cacao harvesting community along Rio Arajuno. The person getting cleaned in Galo Grefa Andi, President of Kallari. Kallari is a chocolate-making organization based in Ecuador that is committed to community viability and economic growth, through knowledge sharing, the preservation of Kichwa cultural traditions and natural resource conservation.
Photo by Kris Davidson. Gabriel Bartolo Salvado Tapuy Grefa, a shaman, demonstrates how the Kichwa “clean” a person’s aura using leaves from the jungle in Santa Barbara, a remote cacao harvesting community along Rio Arajuno. The person getting cleaned in Galo Grefa Andi, President of Kallari. Kallari is a chocolate-making organization based in Ecuador that is committed to community viability and economic growth, through knowledge sharing, the preservation of Kichwa cultural traditions and natural resource conservation.

Being able to partake in a homestays as a part of photographing this story was profound. To witness the day-to-day events of life around the cacao, understanding how much is given to produce it has changed my view on chocolate forever. Never again will I scoff at the $9 “fancy” chocolate bar that proclaims to be single-origin for I understand now what that means. Cacao that is brought and sold in the vast futures market is disembodied from its origin (and the people who labor with the cacao). Generally, single-origin chocolate (in which the cacao is harvested and processed into chocolate in the same country tends to be more beneficial for workers. Fair trade is another catch-phrase that can help in ethical consumption.

Photos by Kris Davidson. Workers sort fermented and dried cacao ahead of chocolate production at Asociacíon Tsatsayaku. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is a chocolate producer in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola. Structured as a cooperative, individual cacoa growers bring their harvested cacao to the association for processing. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is made up of 140 Kichwa and mestizo families from 13 different communities, and its mission is to produce quality cacao that provides a fair price for their members.
Photos by Kris Davidson. Workers sort fermented and dried cacao ahead of chocolate production at Asociacíon Tsatsayaku. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is a chocolate producer in Carlos Julio Arosemana Tola. Structured as a cooperative, individual cacoa growers bring their harvested cacao to the association for processing. Asociacíon Tsatsayaku is made up of 140 Kichwa and mestizo families from 13 different communities, and its mission is to produce quality cacao that provides a fair price for their members.
Photos by Kris Davidson. LEFT: Pacari chocolate bar with various ingredients used in infusions, including salt from the Andean mountains, lemmongrass, goldenberry, passion fruit and chili pepper. Pacari is an Ecuadorian cacao and chocolate making company with a philosophy for continuous innovation, social responsibility, sustainability and direct business trade with small scale farmers. RIGHT: Kallari employee Gabriela Paredes and American excahnge student/Kallari intern Evan Bowker with cacao pods and Kallari chocolate bars in Quito. 80% of the flavor profile of a dark chocolate is the bean itself, with only 1/5th of flavor profile determined by the chocolate manufacturer. To create the best tasting and highest quality chocolate in the world, Kallari starts with the heirloom cacao that Kichwa ancestors domesticated, growing it in fertile alluvial soils, while interplanting the groves with scores of other plant species. Unique cocoa varietals permit Kallari to make a world-class chocolate with less than half the sugar, a shorter roasting time, and minimal refining compared to standard chocolate.
Photos by Kris Davidson. LEFT: Pacari chocolate bar with various ingredients used in infusions, including salt from the Andean mountains, lemmongrass, goldenberry, passion fruit and chili pepper. Pacari is an Ecuadorian cacao and chocolate making company with a philosophy for continuous innovation, social responsibility, sustainability and direct business trade with small scale farmers. RIGHT: Kallari employee Gabriela Paredes and American excahnge student/Kallari intern Evan Bowker with cacao pods and Kallari chocolate bars in Quito. 80% of the flavor profile of a dark chocolate is the bean itself, with only 1/5th of flavor profile determined by the chocolate manufacturer. To create the best tasting and highest quality chocolate in the world, Kallari starts with the heirloom cacao that Kichwa ancestors domesticated, growing it in fertile alluvial soils, while interplanting the groves with scores of other plant species. Unique cocoa varietals permit Kallari to make a world-class chocolate with less than half the sugar, a shorter roasting time, and minimal refining compared to standard chocolate.

Many thanks for reading!

This assignment was made possible in part by the wonderful folks at Sumak Travel who specialize in sustainable travel. Visit their website (http://www.sumak-travel.org) to learn more.

The layout in National Geographic Traveller:

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