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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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: