Cristina Cerda has spent her entire life in the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest. She lives off of the land, where she cultivates corn, yucca, palm trees, and 300 cacao trees of four different varieties in a horticultural plot known as a chacra.
A chacra mimics the growth patterns of the jungle. It is a multi-layered agroforestry system, and plants are grown in conjunction with one another. There are no monocrops, pesticides, or added fertilizers. An irrigation system is not needed; being in a rainforest has its advantages.
Cerda is one of the founding members of Kallari, an Ecuadorian chocolate collective owned completely by cacao-producing families in the Amazon Rainforest. The collective started in the 1997 with American aid and less than 50 families. Today it provides 850 indigenous Kichwa families with a source of reliable income.
Every year Cerda grows and harvest about 91 kilograms of cacao. It is picked up directly from her farm and sent to Quito, where it is processed into chocolate bars and then distributed around the world. The factory churns out bars that range from 60 to 85 percent cacao and flavored with different ingredients like roasted coffee, lime, ginger, Andean salt, and wild cinnamon. From there, the product is distributed locally and to international markets in the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Scandinavia, and Japan.
"Kallari farmers generally receive anywhere between 20 to 60 percent more than non-associated farmers depending on global markets," says William Benzies, a treasurer at Kallari. "This is in stark contrast to typical cacao production, where the farmers have no bargaining power and are vulnerable to trader monopolies, commodity wars, and foreign trade regulations."
Generally speaking, chocolate goes through a lengthy process before it ends up in our grocery stores. Cacao beans are sourced mostly from developing countries, cultivated from small-scale farms, and then shipped to wealthy countries like Switzerland and the United States to be refined. More than half of the global cacao production comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, where companies face serious scrutiny because of lack of transparency and reports of child and slave labor. Although the sector is moving toward corporate social responsibility, the lack of transparency is still a pervasive problem.
"To earn a living off small scale cocoa production is very tough, especially when growing low-yielding varieties," Benzies says. "Even farmers who sell cocoa under the fair trade banner do not fare so well as they are tied to commodity prices."
And so here in the Ecuadorian side of the Amazon rainforest, where cacao is indigenous, a new business model was developed. The 850 families, 95 percent of whom are native, grow cacao in their chacras and the cooperative pays them directly, well above the above the amount typically paid by traders and middlemen. Profits are reinvested into the community into various social programs like retirement funds, health insurance, and educational support.
"People have been able to send their children to school with the money," says Netty Cayapa, the president of Kallari. "All of our families are equal shareholders."
Indigenous groups in Ecuador have a history of being marginalized and poorly represented in the government. This leaves the rainforest vulnerable, where large areas of land can be purchased at very low prices with minimal conditions. Kallari's model allows the families to benefit from the land without damaging the environment.
"The social impact of this initiative is invaluable in reversing the trend in urban migration," Benzies says. "This means that logging the rainforest or selling the land for unsustainable income, such as oil exploration, becomes less attractive."
At Cerda's farm, the cacao trees are not concentrated in one area. They are scattered throughout the land because shade helps them grow.
"In the more isolated farms, only 10 percent of land is given to cocoa cultivation whilst the majority is used for harvesting naturally occurring foods and medicines," he says. "Under these conditions farming is actually beneficial to the surrounding environment, as it encourages a diverse ecology."
Not everyone is thrilled with this business model, though. Benzies says there's a lot of opposition by larger chocolate factories who don't want the status quo disrupted.
"Kallari received a loan to build their own processing facility after [facing] numerous issues securing time from factories that were encouraged not to participate with this novel approach to production," Benzies says. "Basically, Kallari isn't very popular in a country where many people benefit from the buying and selling of cacao."
The cacao in Ecuador, after all, is one of the country's most prized exports. Ecuador has one of the world's oldest varieties of the bean and some of the finest. In 2014, the country exported $236 million worth of cacao and $20.5 million in cocoa paste and butter to the United States. While there are chocolate factories in the country, most of the industry's profits lie in the export of raw materials.
Kallari aims to change that dynamic by keeping everything local. They hope to be an example of a business model that indigenous communities around the world can follow.
"The Kallari cooperative represents a sustainable model, providing a real economic alternative," Benzies says. "Such a model has the potential to be used by other indigenous groups whose habitats are also threatened by the pressures of a changing world."