San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Organic Cacao – Sweet Success?

BRIBRI DE TALAMANCA – Most chocolateis sweet.For a group of organic farmers in Talamanca, inCosta Rica’s southern Caribbean zone, cultivatingcacao beans – from which chocolate is made – hasbrought them some sweet business.Some 800 producers from the region havebound together to form a cooperative that is producingorganic cacao of such high quality thatmanufacturers of fine chocolates in Italy havebegun to prefer cacao produced here to beans producedin Africa – a much more easily accessibleimport location.The cooperative is called the Association of SmallProducers of Talamanca (APPTA), and according toJavier Méndez, manager of the group, the associationexports about 200 metric tons of cacao per year – 50tons to Europe, and the rest to the United States. Thecacao sells for $1,500 a ton, he said.THE cacao grows on trees on producers’ proper ty that blend in with the natural vegetationof the area. Compared to major cacao plantations,each has a relatively small numberof trees, and the plants – untouched by pesticides– could be considered parasiteinfested.Eleodoro López owns one such farmoutside the village of Bribrí, named afterthe area’s indigenous tribe, almost on thePanamanian border.“This goes all the way through,” hesaid, pointing to a rotten spot on one of theorange pods as rain fell through the trees.He took out his machete and reached upand chopped it off the tree and then hackedit open, revealing brown, destroyed fruit.Purchasers of organic cacao, however,are willing to pay a higher price than theywould for conventionally grown cacao, solosing a few pods here and there is not devastatingto his farm, López explained.With the profit from his tiny plantation,López, 52, said he is able to steadily supporthis family.LIKE López, most of the cooperative’sproducers maintain their crops themselves.Though López has gotten help through theyears from his eight children, some whostill live at home, he said he mostly takescare of the farm himself. His youngest isnine, and still helps him now and again, hesaid.López and other APPTA producers shiptheir cacao beans to one central plant justoutside of Bribrí, where the fruits are fermented,dried and packaged for export.Carlos Calero, manager of the processingplant, said six days of fermentation insacks and then six days of sun drying is theideal method for processing the beans.Calero said the fermentation and dryingprocesses acutely affect the flavor andaroma of the beans.Fermentation is never a problem.However, he said, the best cacao is producedduring the rainy season, and heavyrains make sun drying difficult, if notimpossible.When it is too rainy to dry the beans inthe sun, they’re sent to huge beds that providea steady flow of warm air, wherethey’re dried for two days. The final productis still of sufficient quality to beexported to Italy, he said, but sun drying ispreferable.THE Regional EnvironmentalProgram for Central America (PROARCA)is helping APPTA solve this problemby working with cooperative members toconstruct a solar drying unit, said CarlosMorales, of the World Wildlife Fund(WWF), also working as a representativeof PROARCA. The unit, he said, will alsohelp the plant cut down on power consumption.The Talamanca cooperative includes alarge number of indigenous families, somewho have taken further ownership of theircacao.Bribrí women traditionally haveknown how to make chocolate, which isnative to the New World, said MarinaLópez, president of the Commission ofIndigenous Bribrí Women.The commission recently decided to takethis tradition a step further. Bribrí women inthe area now produce artisanal chocolate forlocal sale, and eventually hope to sell it tospecific markets elsewhere in Costa Rica.“WE know how to make chocolate,”she said. “Traditionally, we know. Butknowing that we’re going to commercializeit, we have to improve a lot of things.”It was an idea born of conversationsbetween women of the tribe, she said, tryingto come up with a way to improve theirquality of life.“Here, there is no work,” she said.“Here, the work is our determination towork.”That determination has led to steadysale of their chocolate, prepared in ballsthat can be mixed in hot milk. Sales vary,she said, but they have had several largeorders. For example, they have an order for300 of the balls for delivery May 15.TO make the chocolate, they first roastthe beans in a pot over a fire for about 10minutes. They then peel them, roast themfor ten more minutes, and run them througha manual coffee grinder. This produces afine powder they mix with sugar and rollinto the balls, which retain their form afterdrying a few minutes.Claudina Morales, who has beenmaking chocolate with the commissionfor a year and a half, said the group islooking for an affordable source oforganic sugar.Right now, the women must sell theircacao to APPTA for processing and re-purchasethe beans. To help make their processmore autonomous, PROARCA – whichalready provided manual grinders for thewomen – is providing funding to build solardriers similar to the one being constructed atthe APPTA plant, Morales said.The women would then have a completelyself-contained operation.And according to the Bribrí women,the project will remain in the hands ofwomen.THE Bribrí separate themselves byclans, they explained, and the name of theclan always stays with the women.Thus, to make sure the cacao plantationsstay in control of their particular clan,the Dojkuak, the women pass their land onto their daughters. Because men switchclans when they marry, passing land on tothem could be a risky venture.Marina López said the women havebecome rather proficient at making thechocolate, and promoting their productremains their main challenge.

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