Sweet news: Cacao making a comeback in Mexico

A batch of dried cocoa beans ready to be processed

A batch of dried cocoa beans ready to be processed (© Thomas Cristofoletti /Ruom for USAID/Flickr Creative Commons).

Editor’s note: Saturday, Oct. 28, is National Chocolate Day in the U.S.

Brace yourself, chocolate lovers: Chocolate consumption is growing while cacao production is declining.

The good news: In the cradle of chocolate, a new effort is boosting cacao production while protecting forests in the process.

In the past decade, Mexico — part of the region that gave the world chocolate — has lost more than 50 percent of its cacao production, according to David Olvera, ecosystem services manager for Conservation International (CI) in Mexico. CI is working with small-scale cacao producers in Chiapas, southern Mexico, to reverse this trend.

Cacao production in Mexico has declined in part due to old and diseased cacao trees and to farmers clearing their cacao trees to make way for palm oil, maize and livestock — destroying forests where cacao crops exist alongside native trees and wildlife. To stop this deforestation, CI ‘s Mexico office applied lessons from CI’s partnership with Starbucks in Chiapas to protect nature while supporting local livelihoods.

“When we saw these land-use trends of farmers cutting cacao forests to produce other commodities, we knew we had to get involved,” Olvera said. “We had success working with Starbucks and farmers to produce ethically sourced, shade-grown coffee, and cacao can also be shade-grown, so we knew we could translate lessons learned from coffee to help cacao farmers.”

The task involved a complete overhaul of all aspects of cacao production.

First, CI partnered with the Autonomous University of Chiapas (UNACH), which had been working with organic cacao for over 20 years and developed innovative bio-fungicides to decrease the incidence of a cacao disease known as frosty pod rot.

CI and UNACH worked to organize farmers and connect them directly to buyers at home and abroad. In the coffee sector, farmers had formed cooperatives to advocate for fair working conditions, income and access to markets. By contrast, cacao farmers in Chiapas were operating independently. CI helped 90 farmers form the Rayen cooperative, which then partnered with international boutique traders and Mexican chocolatiers to boost their production and find new, direct buyers while conserving biodiversity in their cacao forests.

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Next, CI and UNACH gave farmers technical assistance, improving the quality of their cacao and dramatically increasing production, in just two years, from an average of 50 kilograms (100 pounds) of cacao per hectare to 200 to 300 kilograms (440 to 660 pounds) per hectare. With these drastic hikes in supply and quality, farmers more than doubled their income, from US$ 2 per kilogram to $4 to $5 per kilogram. Already, farmers have sold three tons of cacao to Europe, according to Olvera.

“Diverse, fine flavors of cacao are in high demand, and Mexico has some great cacaos that were unknown to many buyers,” Olvera said. “Now, people get to experience this great-tasting chocolate, while farmers bring home more money for themselves and their families.”

CI and the university also began collaborating with the chocolate museum in Mexico City (MUCHO), which helped Rayen-grown cacao reach worldwide recognition. According to Olvera, MUCHO’s owner, Ana Rita Garcia Lascurrain, was the first chocolatier to buy a sample of cacao from Rayen. She began experimenting with bean-to-bar recipes, creating new products to sell at MUCHO.

“It was a complete surprise when we found out Anna’s ‘Tapachula’ chocolate bars that were sourced from Rayen’s cacao had won the bronze medal in the 2016 UK Chocolate Awards,” Olvera said. “We didn’t know she had been entering her custom-made chocolate bars into these contests. When we found out MUCHO had won an award with the Tapachula bean-to-bar chocolate, we were thrilled.”

While most of the fine-flavor cacaos produced in Chiapas are exported to the United States and Europe, a small group of cacao producer’s wives also started a new business called MUCAO to use some of the fine-flavor cacao to create three traditional, healthy snacks for local consumers: granola bars, marzipan and hot cocoa.

“These women entrepreneurs had never before worked in their life, and now they’re running a business producing traditional, healthy snacks branded and sold in their community,” Olvera said. “They’re making about $100 per week, and they’re so proud. Their products fly off the shelves, and a local coffee shop has invited them to start selling as many of their products as they can make.”

Even more community members are getting involved, as CI is also pioneering partnerships with local universities, where students complete six-month internships assisting with all aspects of the cacao supply chain as part of their studies.

“Before, younger generations were moving away from rural areas, shunning the family cacao business to seek jobs elsewhere,” Olvera said. “Now, children of cacao producers who are students in agriculture, law and communications are helping Rayen strengthen their value chain by training producers on best practices, assisting with legal aspects, developing brands and labels for packaged products and creating social media platforms for Rayen and MUCAO.”

Olvera and his team are hoping to double the Rayen collective’s cacao production over the next three years.

“It’s great that we were able to replicate CI’s model for sustainable coffee production with cacao — and at the same time prove that cacao producers can develop viable business models to improve their livelihoods,” he said.

Leah Duran is a staff writer for Conservation International.

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