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GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT

A cacao graveyard comes back to life

WE Charity’s Agricultural Learning Center helps farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon region revive failing crops. But can these small-scale farmers take a chunk out of the global chocolate market?

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GLOBAL DEVELOPMENT

A cacao graveyard comes back to life

WE Charity’s Agricultural Learning Center helps farmers in Ecuador’s Amazon region revive failing crops. But can these small-scale farmers take a chunk out of the global chocolate market?

BY KATIE HEWITT | PHOTOGRAPHY BY SARA CORNTHWAITE

Love and faith

Melquiades Coello talks about cacao farming with all the drama and intrigue of a soap opera.

“When you meet a new lover,” he says, meaning a cacao plant, “you have to get to know them before you fall in love.” In romance and in agriculture, the ingredients are the same. “Amor y fe,” he says. “Love and faith.”

Cacao pod hanging on a cacao tree
Cacao pod hanging on a cacao tree
Cacao pods on a table showing the cacao fruit
Cacao pods on a table showing the cacao fruit

His audience, a group of small-scale farmers from Ecuador’s Amazon basin, chuckles audibly. Then, seeing that the straight-faced Coello is completely serious, stifles their knowing laughter. They’re gathered for the inaugural cacao training at WE Charity’s Agricultural Learning Center (ALC) because their fields are full of distant lovers that need more attention.

One of these farmers is Flora Andy, who abandoned her cacao crop when it failed to produce enough fruit, and has since taken out a loan to start again but doesn’t have the tools to care for it. Neptali Shiguango has cacao plants with flowers but no fruit and had plans to cull his fields before he learned of the ALC’s training. During the six-month course, Andy, Shinguango and nearly 100 other farmers will soak up Coello’s wisdom in a fight to save their crops, which are dying without proper care. Head instructor at the ALC, Coello is known locally as “the cacao engineer,” and despite his amusing metaphors, his task is solemn. The livelihoods of local farmers are at stake, along with Ecuador’s piece of the global chocolate pie.

“This is an opportunity that they’ve never had in their lives,” Coello says through a translator. He and the ALC team have been working since 2017, constructing a state-of-the-art classroom and building trust with local farmers to give them a chance to cultivate their skills and improve their lives. The 43-year-old has been raising the country’s cacao since he was a boy, when his father gave him 300 plants and told him to use money from the harvest to put himself through school. Now he’s passing on that tough love.

Cacao farming can be a means of survival or part of a global empire. The world chocolate market is forecast to reach $161 billion by 2024. Cacao beans, once fermented and dried, are needed to satisfy the world’s sweet tooth.

Cacao farmers at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
Cacao farmers at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
Head instructor Melquiades Coello speaks to cacao farmers at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
Head instructor Melquiades Coello speaks to cacao farmers at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador

Ecuador was once the world’s largest cacao exporter, until British and Spanish colonists brought plant diseases and foreign crops. Centuries of colonial rule have isolated rural and Indigenous families from plots with the best soil, market access and formal agricultural training, leaving farmers with an abundance of cacao trees that they don’t understand. What could be a lucrative cash crop becomes an ad hoc means of survival. If their plants don’t produce cacao quickly and consistently, farmers become desperate. They leave their fields and communities, and even resort to criminality, Coello says.

Though Ivory Coast and Ghana lead the global production of bulk cacao, growing mass quantities for big-brand chocolate bars, Ecuador’s national cacao has a cult following. The country’s native variety, fino de aroma, is renowned for its depth of flavour, lingering aroma and rarity in a market flooded with cheap beans. Ecuador’s national cacao is feted by chocolate aficionados with top prizes and fetches a higher price.

Farmers with plots along the Napo River often inherit land endowed with cacao, including fino de aroma. Many of Coello’s students are sitting on dead crops that could become goldmines if they learned how to care for them.

Myth and tradition

After Coello’s lecture on crop spacing, irrigation and proper ratios of shade to sunlight, he takes questions.

Clemencia Chimbo raises her hand. “When we are menstruating, can we go into the plantation?”

Cacao farmers at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
Cacao farmers at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
A cacao farmer at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
A cacao farmer at training at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador

Audible murmurs emerge from the group. There is a strong belief among local elders that a woman’s cycle is a menace to growing crops; bleeding can be blamed for a poor harvest.

Coello sighs. “Esto es un mito,” he says. “This is a myth.”

“If you are trimming and fertilizing, this makes all the difference. Menstruation won’t make a difference.”

He offers to proctor an experiment, pointing out the ratio of women to men in the classroom, which is almost evenly split. Everyone will be in the ALC farm later that day, and repeatedly over the course of instruction. The implication is obvious—surely there are a few periods in our presence, statistically speaking. And there are six more cycles to go.

“In six months, you will see the state of the plants,” Coello says. “You will prove that this is a myth.”

It seems that Coello’s most difficult task will be helping his students unlearn. Local legend and outdated agricultural practices have a multi-generational head start.

Raul Alvares stands up. As a boy, he and his father planted cacao, but it never thrived. Now 54, he’s struggling to earn an income for his wife and their 11 children. He doesn’t want to repeat his father’s mistakes. “We are farmers, but we are blind without training,” he says.

"We are farmers, but we are blind without training." – Raul Alvares, cacao farmer

Venancio Aguinda, 55, has invested three years in a cacao field that has yet to produce fruit. “We are losing money,” he says.

At 24, Jose Andi just inherited a quarter hectare of land from his mother. It’s overgrown, he says, “remontado.” He wants to tame the jungle and plant cacao.

That afternoon, the group departs the classroom for the practice plot, 170 acres of farmland along the Napo riverbank. This field trip is what makes the ALC unique. Many local farmers have already received some form of cacao training, either in school or as part of a public or corporate program with its own vested interest in rural agriculture. Despite this, the group has never encountered a teacher who demonstrated how to work with actual plants. “We took dictation,” Andi says of his school program. In Aguinda’s previous class, run by a European chocolate company, he was shown a video of healthy crops.

To borrow Coello’s metaphor, this is the academic equivalent of a long-distance relationship. In order to get to know a lover, you have to spend time with them.

A farmer trims cacao trees at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
A farmer trims cacao trees at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador

Trimming is the first practical lesson on the syllabus. Farmers line up to borrow handheld pruners, the hardware-store variety easily obtained by suburban gardeners with rose bushes. Many, despite having cacao in their families for generations, have never even held the tool. Instead, the farmers allow Mother Nature to take over, watching as branches flex to the sky and leaves crowd each other. This is one of their biggest mistakes, says Coello. Left in this state unsupervised, the cacao plant’s dense leaves stop sunlight from reaching its fruit, which hangs from its branches in leathery, oblong pods. Leaving the plant to its own devices is an arboreal sin. Cacao trees need to be scaled back, like bonsai trees.

Traipsing through the jungle, the farmers come to a halt at the first sight of the demonstration plot, mouths agape, staring at the cultivated and well-pruned crops that seem so alien in a jungle of lush, waxy greens. In the coming months, the farmers will practice new techniques on these prototypes without risking their own harvests.

Each farmer is randomly assigned four plants, including CCN51, a government-designed variety that many have bedded in their own fields as part of an incentive program. The GMO crop is the kind of bulk cacao destined for large production quotas. It’s also the area’s most common bean and is less temperamental than other varieties. It’s a loyal lover and a familiar partner.

Ecuador’s national variety, fino de aroma, is also assigned, and will eventually come with separate training (later stages of cultivation require more intensive care). Long term, the ALC plans to help students adapt to the more sophisticated crop—a fussier, more demanding relationship—which is also more lucrative. For now, it’s too risky to swap beans on small plots that leave little room for error. Farmers are still mostly dependent on bulk cacao, and it’s best not to rob them of what they know.

Science and skepticism

Coello cuts and tugs at a tree with an almost violent intensity, leaving its dismembered branches in a cluster on the ground between him and his onlookers. Then he tells the farmers to go at it themselves.

Coello and the entire ALC team have spent the last two years clearing land for its classrooms, cultivating the practice field, seeding the idea of a training program with locals and crafting a curriculum, all to help these farmers improve their quality of life. Now all Coello can do is watch.

A farmer trims cacao trees at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador
A farmer trims cacao trees at WE Charity's Agriculture Learning Center in Ecuador

Perched in the fork of a nearby tree is Clemencia Chimbo, with a branch in the mouth of her pruner blades. Even with both hands, she can’t leverage the strength to snap it off and is becoming visibly frustrated. She is anxious for several reasons, but her discomfort in the tree, the stubborn branch and Coello’s watchful gaze are not the most concerning.

She doesn’t know why the elders told her to stay away from the fields during her period, but she fears the consequences. “Everything rots,” she says. She can’t explain it.

Defeated, she jumps down to assess the branch from the ground.

Does she believe what Coello told her, about the myth? Coello stiffens and raises his eyebrows. Chimbo screws up her face and looks down. After a moment she shrugs, and answers without speaking.

“Everything we do, we do with love and faith.” - Melquiades Coello, the cacao engineer

Chimbo is 53, which means for decades, everyone she trusts has warned about the dangers of her cycle. Her own cacao field isn’t producing fruit, and she’s unsure why, but her body could be to blame. Now Coello, a relative stranger, has said that her fellow farmers and trusted elders were wrong. Should she be so quick to abandon her beliefs?

At the ALC, the balance between old farming traditions and new agricultural science will be a delicate one.

Coello hopes the ALC will spark new traditions, starting with rumours about a training program that can revive failing crops and rekindle the country’s old romance with cacao. With the first hundred farmers in training, harvests will improve and word will spread.

Coello turns to one of his proverbs. “La mejor publicidad es la envidia,” he says. “There’s no better publicity than envy.”

The farmers among the cacao trees at training at WE Charity's Agricultural Learning Center in Ecuador
The farmers among the cacao trees at training at WE Charity's Agricultural Learning Center in Ecuador

His students have a long way to go to put their own cacao on the map, but in the meantime, Ecuador is carving out its place as the preferred destination for premium beans. With the right timing and technique, Napo’s smallholders could take advantage of the expanding market for gourmet chocolate and increased demand for traceable origins and independent growers.

Like his students, Coello must be patient while he slowly, painstakingly changes their protocols, all the while knowing what’s at stake if they succeed. He seems to repeat his mantra for his own sake as much as for the farmers.

“Everything we do, we do with love and faith.”

WE works with cacao farmers throughout Ecuador. On the country’s coast, farmers grow beans for ME to WE Chocolate, earning better wages to produce the Fairtrade certified bars whose proceeds also give back to WE Charity partner communities. Visit MEtoWE.com/chocolate to learn more.

Katie Hewitt
Katie Hewitt
Katie Hewitt

Katie Hewitt is a journalist and Associate Director at WE. She loves to travel, but while she’s home in Toronto, a good story is the best trip.

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