Chocolate As a Means For Connection & Transformation

Excited, slightly nervous and exhausted, I arrived in Colombia after a 30 hour journey from Edmonton to Santa Marta, on the north coast skirted by the Caribbean ocean.  I knew that I would learn a lot of technical details about cacao, farming and processes, but little did I know how much this trip would give me an even greater appreciation for the extraordinary transformation that is chocolate.  I wanted to share how this transformation is not only in respect to the literal transformation of the cocoa bean into chocolate, but figuratively in cacao’s power to transform & connect communities and the environment.

We had the privilege of meeting leaders and the Mamo of the Arhuaco community, who are an indigenous people of Colombia. They are Chibchan-speaking people and descendants of the Tairona culture, concentrated in northern Colombia in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.

The Mamo, the spiritual leader of the Arhuaco community. He is charged with maintaining the natural order of the world through songs, meditations and ritual offerings.
Mamo training begins at a young age and continues for around 18 years. The young male is taken high into the mountains where he is taught to meditate on the natural and spirit world.
In Western culture, the Mamo could be seen as the priest, teacher and doctor, all rolled into one.

The Arhuacos are a profoundly spiritual people who follow their own unique philosophy. They consider the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (mountain) to be the heart of the world, and believe that the well-being of the rest of the world depends on it.  They believe it is their duty to respect the natural world and Original Law, intended to order relations between good and evil, light and darkness and between all creatures, including mankind.  They are guardians of natural balance and are worried about people’s inability to capture nature’s messages, and to appreciate the ephemeral nature of our existence and duties to the future.

I wanted to share a message that the Mamo shared with our group (paraphrased) that was given to us in his native language, then translated into Spanish, then into English as we sat under a large tree in a ceremonial space.

“It is important that we understand nature and our connection to it.  Birds, animals and plants haven’t changed, it is humans that are altering nature’s existence and affecting Mother Earth with adverse effects like climate change.  If it keeps changing, all will be lost.”  His message was very grounded in our shared responsibility to protect Mother Earth by listening to the elements and retaining the consciousness through the gifts from the earth like cacao (cocoa).

The Arhuaco people grow many crops including Heirloom Cacao, which is the variety that their ancestors grew. Cacao in their native language is ‘Mun-Zuwa’. 

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Our group of chocolate-makers with some members of the Arhuaco community.
Doña Victoria who was hand-making a ‘mochila’ (a traditional bag) with hand spun wool.

We visited one of the farms run by Hernan’s mother-in-law Doña Victoria, which is only accessible via boat on the Don Diego River. 

Doña Victoria’s Finca has approximately 800 trees, with women predominantly tending to the farm.  The men help in harvest seasons, which occurs twice a year in April-June and again from Oct-Nov.

Like many cacao farmers, they are currently looking at which trees are not producing effectively.  Once identified, they will graft these trees with ‘bud-wood’ which is a branch from the ancestral genetic variety of cacao which will essentially use the existing root system to grow a new tree that will have a higher yield whilst maintaining quality.  Using the existing root system will allow pods to grow within the first year, as opposed to starting a new tree from a seed which can take 3-4 years.

Me and Hernan holding cacao pods from Doña Victoria’s finca.

Before moving on, I wanted to share a story that one of the Arhuaco leaders shared with me that I thought was a perfect little tale that carries the message of doing whatever we can to preserve Mother Earth (story paraphrased):

There is a raging fire in the jungle, and all of the animals are terrified and are running away from the flames.  The animals turn around in astonishment to see a little hummingbird flying towards the fire, and one of the animals asks “little hummingbird, what are you doing?”.  The hummingbird replied, “I’m going to do something about the fire.”  It flies to the nearest stream and takes a drop of water. It races back to the fire, where it drops the water onto the flames. Back and forth it goes, over and over, while the larger animals — like the elephant whose trunk could deliver so much more water — stand watching. Eventually they ask the hummingbird, “What do you think you can do? You’re too little!”  Without pausing, the hummingbird answers, “I am doing the best I can”.

The experience with the Arhuaco community set the scene for what was an inspirational journey through Colombia. 

The opened cacao pod, showing the seeds suspended in a sweet mucilage, that tastes like lychee, mango and/or passionfruit.
Senõr Pedro Pablo, at his farm in Aracataca.

We visited a finca owned by Pedro Pablo in the Magdelena region of Colombia, and his love of cacao was palpable.  He giggled when he said that cacao flows through his veins as it did in his father’s and now in his nephew’s.  I asked him what brings him joy, and with a twinkle in his eye he said “spending as much time as possible with my wife”.  Pedro Pablo tends to his farm daily and uses pruning methods for disease control on his farm without the use of chemicals.

Although we visited many other farms, I wanted to share the story of Tumaco, where JACEK sources its cacao.  Unfortunately, I did not visit the actual farms as the region continues to be conflicted with the trade of illicit substances, so is not safe. However, I was very grateful that the leaders of two of the three ‘associations’ that make up the region of Tumaco came to meet with us in Popoyán to share their stories and goals for their communities through cacao.

Me (Jacqueline) with two representatives from Tumaco – Gustavo to the left and Oberman to the right.

Both Gustavo and Oberman are committed to supporting their communities through sustainability in cacao farming and creating a safer place to live.  Their three main goals are to generate income, create food security and to take care of their environment. They are working to return to the native varietals in the region, and so far have identified 112 varieties.  They have chosen the top ten  for quality, and will be using these in the future.

The stakes are high for these entrepreneurs as their communities depend on them for sustenance and safety, and I truly admire how they are moving the needle in this region that has been plagued with violence.  They have created an environmental program to reduce their carbon footprint, and are achieving this by not using plastic in the nurseries, using solar power to dry the cacao beans etc… 

In addition, they have implementation programs for consistent improvement such as working with a university to study pollination  and compatibility for cacao with other crops.  They are creating systems for training, and supplying tools and fumigation equipment to farmers to support them.  Ultimately, their objective is to create better infrastructure (they currently move cacao by boat as there are no roads!), output and working capital.

Naturally, I asked Gustavo what brings him joy and he responded with (translated/paraphrased), “Happiness to me is family, health and education”.  He also elaborated in saying that he gets joy from connecting with us (chocolate makers) and it motivates him to hear what we are doing around the world in the chocolate industry.

I asked Oberman what the key message is that he wants shared with our customers, and he said:

“It is important to know that there are very hard working people in cacao farming.  By our customers buying chocolate made with their cacao, it is enabling their community to make a living without having to turn to growing illicit crops”

Gustavo chimed in with “Every time you buy fine chocolate, it means that you are supplying our community with happiness for our families, a better quality of life and the ability to protect our families’.

I believe that Carlos Ignacio Velasco of Cacao Hunters/Cacao de Colombia says it best “Chocolate is not a means to an end, but it’s a tool for transformation”.

Interested to taste chocolate made from beans in Tumaco?  We currently have two chocolate bars available, with one in development:

Fabric Bar- Colombia

Whisky Bar – made with Colombian Cacao (Tumaco) that are soaked in Peat Monster Whisky, and transformed into chocolate.

I had the opportunity to travel with other amazing chocolate makers who are making chocolate using beans from Colombia.  Check out:

Hummingbird

Hasnaa Chocolat

Castronovo

Exquisito

If you are interested in learning about the chocolate making process, from the cacao bean to a chocolate bar, please click here to see the short video we created last year, when we visited cacao farms in the Dominican Republic.