Farmers journey deep into the Bolivian Amazon to harvest rare and delicious wild cacao.

By Austin Bailey, World Ark senior editor
Photos by Dave Anderson

Abraham Noza stands next to a mature cacao tree he and his family have tended for years to maximize its productivity.
Abraham Noza stands next to a mature cacao tree he and his family have tended for years to maximize its productivity.

It’s early when Abraham Noza goes to work, but the jungle is already singing. Leaves baked through by the heat crunch underfoot, and from all around comes the buzzing. Noza slaps a couple of the mosquitoes off his thigh with the broad side of a machete. It doesn’t much matter. The hungry hordes keep after him, landing on his ears and tangling in his hair. Soon, dabs of blood dot his shirt.

Mosquitoes thrive in the shady, balmy understory of Bolivia’s Amazon River basin. The land around Noza’s stick-and-thatch house undulates in subtle mounds, the work of a long-forgotten civilization that found a way to keep flooding in check. The prehistoric engineering still functions today, but a lacework of rivers and plenty of afternoon rainstorms make a perfect climate for mosquitoes nonetheless.

Luckily the climate is perfect for other things, too. Plantains, bananas, manioc, corn and rice grow year-round. These starchy staples are the backbone of the Bolivian lowlands diet. But increasingly in Noza’s community of Santa Rosa, and in other communities in the Bolivian Amazon, the backbone of the local economy is chocolate.

The wild cacao that thrives here is food of the ancients and breakfast of champions. Noza and his neighbors start most days with a hot cup of it, ground, toasted and steeped in boiling water. Most of it, though, they sell. Forget about the stuff you grab in the grocery checkout lane, which is made from farmed cacao. Wild Bolivian cacao is a different creature altogether, fruity and mysterious, begging for descriptors usually reserved for artisanal cheese and expensive wine. And increasingly, those who harvest this rare and prized cacao are charging accordingly.

Noza’s family and 2,783 others in the jungled Beni and Santa Cruz departments of Bolivia are part of a Heifer project that’s helping them harvest these magic beans in ways that fortify the forest, ensuring the cacao trees will bear fruit for generations. The project is also helping these low-income cacao harvesters process their beans to achieve the highest quality so they can market them for the highest prices.

January is cacao harvest season in the Bolivian Amazon, and families flock to the forests to pick pods from the wild-growing trees. The seeds inside are dried and fermented, then processed into chocolate.

GETTING THERE

Mathilde Medrano Semo uses a long stick fitted with a metal loop at the end to knock ripe cacao fruit from high branches.
Mathilde Medrano Semo uses a long stick fitted with a metal loop at the end to knock ripe cacao fruit from high branches.

If you want to see these enchanted chocolate forests in person, brace yourself for an epic journey. Planes, trains and automobiles simply won’t suffice. To get deep into the jungles where cacao trees grow, you’ll have to add boats, canoes, trucks and motorbikes to the mix.

In San Jose de Cavitu, a village of 80 families that relies on the two-month cacao harvest for roughly a third of its income, no trucks come in or go out during the rainy season. They can’t, since near-daily showers churn the dirt roads into sticky, lumpy troughs that routinely strand travelers for days. And it’s during this rainy season, from late December through February, that the cacao trees bloom, then sprout their football-shaped pods.

So skip the roads. A three-hour boat ride down the Apere and Cabeta rivers is lovely, anyway, with sightings of pink river dolphins, monkeys, capybaras and hundreds of tropical birds virtually guaranteed. A Capuchin monkey named Boris might scream a greeting from the shore when you arrive. Boris used to terrorize San Jose de Cavitu, chasing chickens and stealing the strips of beef laid out to dry in the sun. So Sabina Mato captured him and made him a family pet. Now an unofficial village mascot, Boris lives in a tree overlooking the river in Mato’s packed-dirt yard. He spends his days eating fruit that people bring him and heckling passersby.

Like everyone else in San Jose de Cavitu, Mato, 51, lives in a grass-thatched house and grows most of what she and her family eat. Plantains, bananas and manioc, a starchy root vegetable that’s usually ground, boiled and fried, are on the table every day. Mato, her husband and their two sons grow enough of these crops to sell the extras, but prices are low. So they have to produce a lot to make enough money to buy oil, soap, flour, sugar, clothes and shoes.

No matter if your Spanish is rusty or even nonexistent, you won’t leave San Jose del Cavitu without learning at least one word: trabajo. Spanish for “work,” it’s what everyone is doing, all the time. “We have to work very hard,” Mato said. “We have to work in the field every day.”

In January and February, they leave the fields for the forest. Both children and adults make the daily hour-long motorbike ride or four-hour walk into the forest where cacao trees grow. Provisioned with buckets, tote bags and long sticks to knock the fruit from high branches, teams tramp into the shadowy understory. The air is still and wet under the dense ceiling of vegetation, and many of the chocolate gatherers wear multiple layers of clothing to protect against the ever-present clouds of mosquitoes.

The football-shaped pods are ready once they’ve turned from green to yellow. Some people haul the pods home whole, others slice them open and pour the slick, white, scallop-like fruits into buckets, leaving tall mounds of husks to decompose on the forest floor. The fruit, which tastes melon-like and citrusy, with no hint of the chocolate flavor we’re used to, serves as a snack for the harvesters who can spend all day in the forest.

“It’s very tiring. It’s hard being eaten by the mosquitoes,” said Mathilde Medrano Semo, who was picking cacao with her son, his friend and the family dog, Guardian.

But this tough job pays well, said Thomas Semo, a father of three. Best of all, he said, the work is neither extractive nor illicit. No trees are chopped or burned to make way for gardens or pasture, and unlike coca, Bolivia’s other famous crop, cacao can cross borders legally. So it’s with great pride that Semo and other harvesters pack up their dried and fermented beans and ship them down the river or load them on trucks bound for the new processing plant outside San Ignacio de Mojos, a spotlessly clean, high-tech plant perched on the edge of the jungle. 

Heifer is working with communities in the Bolivian Amazon to harvest cacao for the production and marketing of chocolate, while preserving the health of the forest. By adding sheep, poultry and fish to their regular cacao activities, these families have alternate sources of income and nutrition.

THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY

Pancho Matsuzike shares fresh chocolate with children who came to a demonstration at the factory.
Pancho Matsuzike shares fresh chocolate with children who came to a demonstration at the factory.

As big as an airplane hangar, blindingly white and with a tidy grass yard, the cacao processing plant practically gleams in the sun. Inside, new equipment sparkles on the smooth cement floor, and the workers’ starched white lab coats hang on a wall, with matching white gumboots lined up underneath. Rows of potbellied burlap sacks nearly overflow with the almond-shaped beans waiting to be roasted, peeled, ground and formed into bars.

Only a few years old, the plant was built with funding from a number of local and international nonprofits including Heifer International partner CIPCA (the Center for the Advancement and Training of Peasant Farmers). The idea for it was born in the late 1980s as harvesters began to realize the value of the local wild chocolate and the merits of banding together. So they formed the Indigenous Agroforestry Association of the Southern Amazon. Today, the group owns and operates the plant, and includes members from 49 communities. A staff of six paid workers and a rotating army of association members keep the plant running.

Association President Silvia Cita Cuellar is sleepy and slow-moving on her only day off for the week. Her unpaid post is especially demanding during the rainy season, when fresh sacks of cacao beans come in to be processed every day. She’s relieved to sit down in the cool, shady building on a weekend day when the growling machines are turned off and the only sounds come from the birds outside and the rain-like tapping the metal roof makes as it expands in the heat of the sun.

A mother of four and grandmother of six, Cuellar has always grown manioc, rice, plantains, corn and bananas, and she’s always harvested cacao, but not very much of it because the buyers who came through offered low prices. Once the association formed, though, members realized the true value of their rare and prized crop. Cuellar and many others took advantage of literacy classes and grew in confidence as their reading and writing skills improved. Thus emboldened, the association started calling the shots.

“Instead of the buyers telling us the price, we will show our product and say, ‘This is the price. This is what you need to pay,’” Cuellar said.

The unsweetened bars produced at the plant are sold to chocolate makers in Bolivia, who further process the cacao into candy bars that are sold in country. The effort to harvest and transport wild cacao results in a higher cost and a more limited market, said Michael Segal, a London-based spokesman for the International Cocoa Association. But increasingly, high-end chocolatiers are seeking out wild, organically grown cacao. Cuellar said the association aims to expand operations to produce candy on site and export it beyond Bolivian borders.

THE FAMILY BUSINESS

You could call Abraham Noza and his brother, Ricardo, the founding chocolatiers of Santa Rosa. Their forefathers harvested cacao, but it was the brothers who first latched on to the idea that with time and cooperation, the wild bean could yield prosperity. They were the first to begin managing the cacao forests rather than just dropping in a couple of months out of the year to pick.

“We started planting new trees, and people said, ‘Why are you planting? There’s plenty in the forest,’” Ricardo Noza said. But now, with help from Heifer and its partner CIPCA, other members of the community are planting new trees and helping to care for established ones by trimming diseased limbs and applying organic fertilizers made from rotting wood.

Keeping the forest healthy and productive will help keep cattle ranchers or large-scale farmers from coming in and clearing it. The Heifer project here also includes fish and sheep to boost nutrition and income during the 10 months of the year when cacao can’t be harvested.

“What the cacao has done for us is allowed us to have financial independence,” Abraham Noza said. “Before, we had to hire ourselves out as day labor, having to leave our wives and children behind. Now we can stay close to our families.”