Among the zillions of reasons to be grateful for Mother Earth is this: she gives us chocolate! And since today is Earth Day, you have our permission to treat yourself.
But what kind of chocolate should you pick? Most of the chocolate we eat comes from cacao that's cultivated, but the tastiest and most authentic tidbits come from the shadowy forests of South America where cacao trees grow wild. Caring for these forests so they can thrive and produce cacao for generations to come is a major component of a Heifer project spanning Bolivia's remote Amazon regions. The project offers the dual benefit of nurturing the forests while helping families there use traditional crops and knowledge to boost their incomes.
Visitors flying into the bumpy field that serves as a landing strip for the northeastern Bolivian town of Baures are greeted with a modest wooden sign welcoming them to "The Chocolate Capitol." The wild cacao on which the region pins its reputation grows in the forests that lie beyond the town and past the cow pastures.
These forests, twisted with vines and shaded by a tall and thick canopy of trees, are vibrant and productive. Home to birds, monkeys, butterflies and probably an anaconda or two, these forests provide sustenance and a livelihood for the people of Jasiaquiri, a village just outside of Baures. Many of the residents here are working with Heifer International and partner organization CIPCA, a Bolivian NGO that helps small farmers, to capitalize on the rich, healthy stock of wild cacao growing in the more than 12,000 acres of forests in the region.
The most important thing the Jasiaquiri Chocolate Growers' Associate gets from this partnership is training in how to keep the forest healthy, association Vice President Juan Antonio Atiares Omireji said. Omireji and others are learning how to ward off witch's broom, a fungus that can damage cacao trees. Now that they know how to spot it, cacao harvesters bury or burn diseased tree limbs to keep the fungus from spreading. Trainings also showed them how to fertilize cacao trees organically to make them more productive, and how to raise trees in nurseries so they can replant whenever a tree is lost in the forest.
"A managed area will increase its yield," explained Vanessa Mendoza, an agronomist for CIPCA. So although the cacao harvest happens only in January and February, people work year-round to clear vines and any trees that could inhibit cacao production. They also keep trails clear for easy access and dig fire troughs between the forests and grazing land so that when pastures are burned, the forests will still be safe, she said.
Caring for the Earth is a big part of any Heifer project, but are the results always this sweet? To find out more about how Heifer cares for the Earth, see our Cornerstone: Improving the Environment.
Happy Earth Day!