Saturday, August 19, 2017

For the Love of Chocolate

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Hola devoted readers! I’m writing to you after a little adventure in Colombia recently came to a close. While I voyaged across the great ocean in order to present at the International Congress on Conservation Biology (yes, I did do some work…), I stayed for the biodiversity and agroforestry.
Colombia is a biodiversity hot spot, with endemic species of fauna and flora, as well as a range of alluring ecosystems to explore – from montane rainforests to savannas, beaches, and deserts. Even staying along the Caribbean coast, I found the elevation gradient provided a wealth of possibilities - sandy beaches bordering bathtub-warm water; sticky tropical rainforests, and the cooler montane forests that seem perpetually on the cusp of being shrouded in clouds. While the country is a birder’s paradise (over 1900 speceies), the attraction for me was in the coffee and cacao farms scattered around.
I was won over by Minca, a town about 45 minutes drive outside of Santa Marta, which climbs into the mountains a couple thousand meters above sea level. We stayed for a night on a coffee farm, turned bed-and-breakfast/retreat, tucked into the hills. Then I trekked up the next day to La Candelaria coffee and cacao farm for a bit of a tour from bean to belly. The owner, Eugenio, inherited this 85-year-old farm from his father (and grandfather before that), which spans 10 hectares of coffee, cacao (2 ha), and fruit tree, plus pasture for mules (so about 10 sports fields...). At the moment, he is in the process of converting to organic certification, which follows three main principles:
  • To foster bird habitat on the farm, there are dozens of different types of fruit, including mangos, oranges, and ten types of bananas!
  • No chemical inputs are used, so compost replaces fertilizer, salt water stands in for the fungicide against black pod disease, and frequent harvesting saves cacao pods from pesky birds and squirrels.
  • And while he didn’t provide details, fair and safe labour practices are an element of certification. 
As a small farm, they don’t have the capacity to make and sell fully processed chocolate bars, so I escaped with bags of pure cacao (think unsweetened chocolate bar). You're not going to find this stuff in your local chocolate shop.

But you might find the coffee ... well, you might find Colombian coffee with beans from many farms. Eugenio admitted that most of his sales are to domestic restaurants/cafes and tourists. That's because coffee gets a bit political. The Federacion Nacional de Cafeteros de Colombia controls all coffee exported from the country, requiring permissions if farmers want to ship any of their product overseas. While this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it ensures a standard of quality for coffee and helps to avoid prices fluctuations, it also can make things difficult for a small farmer who has higher marginal costs for the amount of coffee he produces.

This has some implications for the "direct trade" coffee en vogue at the moment. The idea behind this concept is to cut out the middleman between coffee farmers and roasters, so that more of the value is captured by those growing the beans. For coffee connosieurs, it also means roasters have more control over the beans they are getting and the subtle distinctions causes by soil, climate, and farming practices. While it's not without problems, for many it can mean longer-term, more trusting relationships between suppliers and buyers. For now, I'll just be satisfied with my directly traded coffee and cacao in small quantity...

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