From Amazonia Coca to Cacao: Acopagro in the Time of Pandemic

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by Angie Higuchi

It was a Saturday in March. After three hours, we were still traveling down the Huallaga River in a small wooden boat. The roar of the motor could be heard all the way along the route, as we watched the blue sky with its white cotton clouds, the deep green of the trees and the earth-colored river, a truly picturesque sight. The wooden boat was entirely fill: not even another chicken could have fit in. I wondered what I would finally feel when we reached the Gervacio community in the Peruvian Amazon.

I spent my time on the boat revising my printed questionaires for the cacao producers. I was pursuing my doctoral studies in Japan at the time, and my research focused on the commercialization of cacao by those growers associated with a cooperative, in particular, the case of Acopagro, in contrast to those who used intermediaries to sell their product. All along the river, I was concentrated on reviewing the printed surveys. And checking to see if I had everything with me: My camera, a pen and my taperecorder.  Everything was in its place.

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Angie, in the pink shirt, embarking on Juanjui's service to Gervacio.

 

Turning my head, I realized that I was sitting alongside people who were returning to their homes, their community. They were loaded up with supplies from the city: fuel, supplies, processed foods, live animals and goods that others had ordered.  The boat owner also carried letters, documents and packages, taking advantage of the boat as a kind of mail system. “Have we arrived?” I asked the boatsman. We had indeed. The passengers gave me a hand to get off the boat. I jumped off on one foot so I wouldn’t get my socks wet and I felt my shoe sinking in the mud. I took another long step and smelled the odor of fermenting cacao. I was finally in the Gervacio community. I climbed up a small hill and encountered a woodland filled with plantains, yuca, corn, oranges, beans and, of course, cacao.

Toribia Tuanama is a very active member of Acopagro and owns almost eight acres of Gervacio. Together with her husband, she greets me just beyond the shoreline. Enthusiastically, she offers me a glass of masato (a drink made from fermented yuca) and declares with a hug: Señorita Angie, welcome! Hope you can tell the president what we do here.” I immediate note that woman power permeates the camp since Toribia’s husband doesn’t say a single word. I smile and think, “I don’t think I’ll ever get to meet the president, but I’ll make an effort so he’ll read what we write.”

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Toriba Tuanama and her cacao on her land.

 

Around me are several little wooden homes in the middle of a woodland with hens and chickens running around the camp. Dogs of different breeds (and non-breeds) abound, as do a multitude of children. A bit later, Toribia pulls gently at my arm and takes my hand. The tour has begun. I let myself be led. The first thing I ask is about coca production. Toribia answers: “Much violence. We live with fear.” The rest of the people accompanying us nod their heads in agreement. Drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorist organizations cause tensions and conflicts. The very state of abandonment and lack of communication between communities in the Amazon region provided the perfect terrain for coca cultivation, the raw material for cocaine, before the 1990s. Because of this, in a region with a lack of infrastructure and highways, cacao producers are geographically distant from agricultural supplies, storage centers and ports. This left farmers without financial or technical support abandoned to the whims of the free market.  

As we walk along the farm, the odor of fermentation becomes more intense. I’m introduced to the collector, Emilio Amasifuen, who gives me a very firm handshake just outside his home. I can see wooden boxes that look like inverted staircases, literally steps in guaranteeing the quality of the cacao. Emilio gives me a brief lesson about the cacao groves and the process of fermentation and drying. He takes a cacao pod and cuts it in half with a machete, inviting me to sample the bean wrapped in whitish pulp.  The taste is a bit sweet, almost like mangosteen, a tropical fruit. He explains to me that cacao can take on the taste and smell of the plants surrounding it.  “That’s why you can eat chocolate with different flavors, because if you grow cacao by the side of an orange tree, it tastes like an orange,” Emilio explains. What an interesting story and how magic is cacao, I think. “If one is surrounded by positive people, then one becomes a positive person” I ponder, stretching for an analogy.

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Arrival of a first aid "basket" to help the community face the Coronavirus. They are meeting at the edge of the community to avoid spreading the disease.

 

At this precise moment, a cacao producer, a cooperative member, arrived with two heavy buckets filled with fresh cacao beans. The buckets bear the logo of a popular brand of vegetable oil. Each bucket weights 45 pounds. The collector explains to me that he uses a factor of conversion of one third, that is, for every 46 pounds of fresh cacao, once the pulp has been discarded, the payment is for 15 pounds of dried beans. The collector is also in charge of this work because only the clean beans are the ones that undergo the process of fermentation and drying to produce chocolate.

After receiving the buckets and weighing them, the collector pays the producer the value of the two buckets and writes down the numbers in his notebook. Emilio continues to show me the rest of the process. We arrive at some wooden boxes placed on different steps of a large ladder. He uncovers the wooden boxes, and we begin to feel the heat rise from them. To avoid the loss of heat from the beans in the process of fermentation, they are covered with bags, canvas or any other available material. The heat and strong smell that emerges when the boxes are uncovered is a good sign that the fermentation is at its optimal point. He stirs the contents of the boxes with a large wooden spade and the smell—somewhere between acidic and honeylike—combined with the wood is quite intense. Emilio explains that this process is one of the most important because the beans concentrate the aroma and taste of chocolate at that point. Later he shows me the cement floor covered with plastic where the cacao beans are exposed to sunlight. This drying process seals the fragrance and taste of the chocolate. Finally, the dry beans are put into large sacks and brought by boat to Juanjui, where the cooperative’s headquarters is located.

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After he has explained to me this fascinating and rigorous process, I tell the collector that I’m curious why he continues to work with Acopagro, rather than with some other channel of comercialization. Emilio tells me that thanks to Acopagro his three younger children have been able to go to school. Another factor is that Willian Vasquez, the cooperative’s technician comes from the community itself and offers information, technical assistance and training to cooperative members. In this way, members know that their production will get to international markets—and this is a source of pride.

Intermediaries, the other existing channel of commercialization, on the other hand, do not pay attention to quality because they are directed to the domestic market. They do not demand quality control translated into the prudent fermentation and drying of the cacao beans. And to the degree that the intermediaries receive the same price for the entire production, they have no incentives to improve the quality of the product—and indeed this situation sometimes contributes to the “falsification” of cacao by substituting other products. He is also convinced “they cheat on weight.” Many intermediaries are said to work with recalibrated scales to make a few more cents. After thanking the cooperative members for their time and dedication, I turn off my taperecorder and take the requisite photos. Time has flown by. It is time to go. The boat is waiting for me at the shoreline. Toribia, her husband and Emilio shake my hand and say goodbye, telling me to come back soon. My boat slowly departs from the shoreline. I am returning to Juanjui. The sun is slowly setting, reflecting on the Huallaga River.

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In these moments of state of emergency and lack of mobility because of the Covid-19 pandemic, Acopagro has not been exempt. The entire process of production and distribution of cacao has changed. Many farmers have closed off their communities, not allowing strangers in because of fear of the coronavirus. Within their communities, farmers are consuming what they produce in their own farms to avoid having to obtain products from the city to balance their diets. Children have stopped going to school.

The communities blockades and also the peasant patrols impede the normal preparation and distribution of the lots of cacao to Juanjui. However, the Acopagro cooperative has continued its storage activities with cacao in pulp. This is not only because the cooperative has prior commitments with foreign clients, but because cooperative members know that their crops will be damaged if they are not processed. The cooperative has designed a protocol of preventive measures in its fifty storage centers. It has drawn circles on the floor with whitewash so producers can wait their turns, respecting the necessary social distancing. Moreover, measures such as the use of masks and sanitizing gel are being used already in the storage center closest to Juanjui, with a plan to roll out the measures to other centers. Since the technicians cannot travel to the storage centers in all the communities because of social distancing, they take photos of the implementation in this center to be copied in the others.

Through cellphones, the photographs are distributed to technicians and collectors in every community. The idea is that the rest of the centers implement these measures to keep on storing cacao and to avoid contagions in the towns where the producers live. In this manner, they have been able to collect that farmers produce, keeping post-harvest quality standards.

The pandemic has created unanticipated expenses for the cooperative. In spite of much effort, the cooperative has difficulties in transporting its product from the communities to its central storage in Juanjui and then on to Lima. However, Acopagro has kept on paying its producing members because it realizes they are the most vulnerable link in the chain. The cooperative’s strategy is to guarantee the pay to the communities so that the collector can easily pay the farmers for the sale of the cacao.

Acopagro also has bought food and other staples for those who are most vulnerable or who live in isolated communities the furthest away from the river. These contributions have been made possible through the money received from the sale of certified organic and fairtrade cacao and from economic donations from international clients. In an effort to avoid contagion, the supplies are delivered to the edges of the community to delegates in charge of distributing the goods to cooperative members of the same community.

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Acopagro is also offering advice on applying for government subsidies offered to those affected by the situation, since these subisidies have to be applied for online, and many farmers don’t have the technology or the know-how to do so. Other cooperatives and organizations should learn from Acopagro’s experience to reproduce its policies and actions to achieve sustainable grown with technical, human and financial capabiities developed over the medium- and long-term.

Exactly ten years has gone by since I began my research, and I am thankful to Acopagro because it allowed me to write my thesis and complete my doctorate. I graduated with honors from Kyushu University in Japan with a degree in agricultural science. I returned to Peru, dedicating myself to research and teaching. The Acopagro cooperative has also changed over the years: from 27 members in 1997 to 1,800 producers of organic and fairtrade cacao organized into 60 central committees as of this writing. This growth has been stimulated by community involvement and confidence.

This pandemic will definitely mark a turning point in our lives. The Peruvian jungle is no exception. But something is certain: even with Covid-19, the consumption of chocolate is not going to stop. The Acopagro cooperative won’t either.

 

Angie Higuchi is a professor and researcher at the Universidad del Pacífico, Perú. She specializes in the area of food and agriculture, particularly in rural development, food security, safety and consumption.

 

See also: Peru, Food