Thursday, April 21, 2011

Hunters of the Wild Cacau

In a recent article in São Paulo newspaper Estado de S. Paulo, Cintia Bertolino, reporting from the middle of the Amazonian rain forest, highlighted the work of a small group of "wild-chocolate hunters." The cacaueiro, or cacau tree, which bears the fruit from which chocolate is made, is native to the Amazon and in the most remote reaches of the rain forest there are still places in which the wild ancestor of the cultivated, hybridized commercial cacau tree flourishes.

As the world's appetite for chocolate, and for new chocolate experiences grows unabated, chocolate producers are constantly looking out for new and exotic sources of chocolate. Wild chocolate appears to be one of these new sources, and according to chocolate experts, offers a new chocolate experience. Harvesting the wild fruit also provides a living for a few residents of the rain forest, most of whom are native Americans.

Here is a translation of Ms. Bertolino's article:

Finding cacau trees in the Amazonian forest without trained eyes or an internal GPS - which only those who were born on the banks of the great river and in the forest possess - is like trying to find a needle in a haystack populated by nosy mosquitos and enormous ants.

None of this distracts Alisson Apurinã in his work. For the past three years, beginning in March, the young man of Indian origin sets out in his canoe at the break of dawn and paddles the Purus river in search of native cacau trees, sprinkled throughout the forests of the [Brazilian] state of Amazonas. The cacau trees, ancient and tall, are part of the local ecosystem and until recently bore fruit that no one bothered to harvest. Because they have not been planted by humans in plantations, these trees bear a different fruit, smaller and stronger in flavor than domesticated varieties.

Less bitter than hybridized cultivars, wild or native cacau has good acidity and a taste that is characteristic of chocolate. "When you think of chocolate, this is it. It's not so fruity, but it is the quintessence of chocolate," says American Frederick Schilling, developer of Amma Chocolate along with Bahian partner Diego Badaró.

Finding a cacau tree in the midst of other trees is not an easy task. In March, when the harvest that extends to May begins, Apurinã starts his daily search at 7 a.m. Arriving in the forest by boat or canoe and with three large sacks in hand, he begins his hunt.

Some cacau trees reach 25 meters [80 feet], which no pruning-hook can reach. That means that the tree must be climbed, a feat that Apurinã accomplishes with impressive agility. On a good day, when his sacks are full, he finishes climbing at 3 p.m. But the task of carrying the sacks through the jungle to his canoe still remains to be done.

The would would be easier if Mother Nature hadn't decided to put obstacles in the way of the cacau hunters - playing hide-and-seek with them. Locals say that it's well known that in the year following a good harvest in a particular area the yield diminishes. Their assertion can be explained by local microclimates and the varying age of the trees. "In 2009, they yielded a lot of cacau. It rained so much that the river overflowed its banks and inundated the forest. We had to enter the forest itself in our canoes to harvest the fruit, says Apurinã, commenting that last year's harvest was much smaller.

The banks of the Purus River provide a lot of cacau. Cacau trees only sprout in swampy areas, where the land is submerged for part of the time. And don't be deluded by the size of those swamps. In Amazonia everything is larger: from its source in the Contamana mountains in Peru to its mouth, the Amazon extends over 3300 kilometers [2000 miles.] Residents of 65 small riverside communities along 1000 km [600 miles] of the Purus River collect cacau along both banks of the torrential, muddy river. The river is also home to tucunarés, curuaçus, caracus, mandis, piramutabas and many other fish that feed the natives.

The harvest of wild cacau began to be commercialized only in 2005 by the Cooperativa Agroextrativista do Mapiá e Médio Purus [Agricultural Harvesting Cooperative of the Mapiá and Middle Purus] which since that time has sold the totality of their harvest to a German chocolate producer.

From the forest the cacau travels by boat to three areas along the river which have been improved by the cooperative. There the cacau beans are fermented and dried.

In Canacuri, one such riverside community of 13 families and only reachable by canoe, Jessivaldo Justino da Silva is responsible for cacau production. The cacau beans must be turned eight times daily to assure even drying. From Canacuri, the dried beans travel by boat to Boca do Acre, and from there pass a week in a truck which brings them to the port of Santos, where they are loaded onto ships bound for Germany.

So much effort is repaid in the quality of the cacau beans. "They are doing excellent work with the wild cacau. The beans are beautiful and clean, without bits of shell or double beans," says Schilling.

"We're still not making a profit, but this work provides a great benefit to the riverside dwellers and also to the forest. When people discover that they can make a livelihood in the forest, deforestation diminishes," says Jaime Passos Sass of the cooperative.

The region of the Médio Purus and Juruá rivers still has a lot of wild cacau which could be harvested and properly prepared for market. This is affirmed by consultant Alexandre Carvalho Lins, who works with the Brazilian International Institute of Education (IEB), which has similar projects in the Madeira and Alto Solimões regions of the Amazon.

"The harvest in the [Médio Purus and Juruá] regions has the potential to produce hundreds of tons of cacau, but the problem is that the producers only harvest and dry beans for large companies,' says Lins, who is currently working with engineers from the Amazonian state of Acre to develop a transportable barge for cacau drying.

"In the Amazonian region it is very difficult to obtain commercial financing for projects because of the absence of land titles, especially along the river banks," explains Lins.

Bit by bit and with the assistance of facilitators. the idea is to show chocolate producers how well-harvested cacau, properly fermented and dried, can obtain a high price in the market. "In the future, we hope that many other regions of the Amazon might start their own cooperatives," says Lins.


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