Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance
“At first glance, the certified cacao bean looks like any other, but behind it there is better quality of life for children, for women, and all the communities. The farmers know that now they are earning much more money.”
Ecuador is well known for its banana and coffee products, as well as for being the world’s leading producer of aromatic cacao. One of the finest aromatic chocolates, Plantations Arriba Chocolate — distributed by Vintage Chocolate Imports, comes from shade cacao farms and bears the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal of approval. This rich chocolate with a strong natural aroma is now being sold in many fine restaurants of the United States, such as Les Halles and the Waldorf Astoria in New York City. We learned about the achievements and challenges of this successful initiative from José Valdivieso, co-director of the Ecuadorian NGO Conservación y Desarrollo, which has been providing training and technical assistance to cacao farmers and processors in the north and south of the nation since 1997 and has guided them toward certification of a product that is sold today as a delicacy. These efforts are helping recover the original legacy of Ecuador’s high quality cacao against hybrids that grow in deforested fields, yielding low quality chocolates with artificial aromas and flavors.
Question: How did the eco-chocolate initiative come about?
Valdivieso: It all began in 1993. We were working in the north in Esmeraldas. We had heard that cacao could be produced in those sectors but there were problems with some chemicals. We got connected with the Elf Foundation of England through the Rainforest Alliance. They funded our study to determine the potential for cacao in Esmeraldas, which is in northern Ecuador on the border with Colombia.
We completed the research and made a regional map of cacao. Using this study, we spoke with the Swiss government to prepare certification guidelines for cacao in southern Ecuador because the north did not have much cacao. We met with the Federación Nacional de Productores Cacaoteros del Ecuador (National Federation of Cacao Producers of Ecuador), which was just beginning and did not yet have anything underway, to see about the possibility of preparing the certification norms for this product. With funds from the Swiss government, we worked with a cacao association called El Progreso, until it was certified in 1998. We then trained five more cooperatives on how to achieve cacao certification. These standards are very strong in social, ecological, and quality control aspects. We received help in technical aspects from the CIRAD Program of France, a leader in cacao technology. We continued working in El Progreso and produced two kinds of standards: for certification and for commercialization.
Over the next few years we trained farmers about the certification and commercialization guidelines, and they began to create cacao storage and handling centers. The Chocolate University was formed in Ecuador in 2001, as an initiative of the president of Vintage Chocolates, Pierrick Chouard. In 2004, Chouard became interested in buying certified cacao, and he hired an Ecuadorian company to make chocolate bars. In June of that year, Arriba Chocolate was born. Vintage processes, manufactures, and exports this high quality chocolate to the United States and Canada. They have made more than 300,000 chocolate bars in different sizes.
Q: Why was that company interested in buying certified cacao to produce chocolate?
Valdivieso: Nowadays people don’t just talk about the quality of the chocolate. Consumers want to know what’s behind a bar of chocolate: for example, whether there is child labor exploitation, the conditions under which the chocolate is produced, and if the people are receiving a fair price for the cacao. This is even happening in Latin America. It’s not just about flavor; rich chocolate just isn’t enough.
Q: Where are the consumers who are most interested in purchasing certified chocolate?
Valdivieso: They are in Europe, the United States, Canada, and Latin American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Mexico, and Ecuador itself. Awareness of the intangible aspects behind cacao production is growing. The consumer wants to be informed about how it was made. People are willing to pay a premium price to consume a product that will let them sleep at night knowing that no one is being harmed. The chocolate is sold as a delicacy and people are accepting the product — so much so that the company is producing three times as much this year.
Q: How much higher is the price that consumers pay for this special chocolate?
Valdivieso: From 35 to 49 percent more on average, in comparison with other chocolates. The chocolate leaves Ecuador costing a dollar and then passes through an entire distribution system, reaching the consumer at $3.50. Work is being done to improve the chocolate quality, combining a beautiful philosophy with a delightfully rich chocolate.
Q: How do you inform consumers about the origin of the chocolate?
Valdivieso: The chocolate bar has a statement that tells the consumer about the production of the bar, its quality, and the groups being helped. It carries the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal. But it would be good if people better understood how the chocolate bar was made. We’ll be putting a little more information on the next batch of boxes.
Q: What place does Ecuador occupy in global cacao production?
Valdivieso: Ecuador is number 10 in production but number one in aromatic cacao. It provides 80 percent of the world’s aromatic cacao. This means that its aroma and flavor are not artificial. The important thing about chocolate is its aroma.
There are chocolates that are just mixtures with hardly any cacao, just a little cocoa powder; their main components are milk and sugar. The flavor of that kind of chocolate only lasts a few minutes, whereas real chocolate is eaten between meals with the world’s best wine or cognac.
Q: What fraction of national cacao production is certified?
Valdivieso: Nationally, two million quintals are produced annually and only a little over 40,000 quintals (8.8 million pounds) are certified. About 7,500 producers are now trained to produce certified cacao, but the market is demanding many more quintals.
Our biggest problem is that the producers are very small; most have only five acres (two hectares) of land and produce some 10 quintals (2,200 pounds) per year. We are improving training methods so we can more rapidly increase the number of producers.
Q: What environmental and social benefits has certification given the cacao farmers?
Valdivieso: The people have learned to live in better harmony with the environment and to properly take care of resources such as water and soils. They have secondary forests on their land, and there is no hunting. Neither is there abuse of agrochemicals. Plus the farmers receive a fair price for their product. Besides the Rainforest Alliance Certified seal, which a total of 2,500 farms have earned, 50 farms are certified by Fair Trade and about half are certified as organic. The certifications are complementary and ensure environmental and social benefits from production. A total of 2,500 families are benefiting from certified cacao production and 250,000 acres (100,000 hectares) of forest are protected as a result.
At first glance, the certified cacao bean looks like any other, but in reality, there’s a lot behind it: better quality of life for the children, better relations among men and women, since women have higher status, and improved community conditions. People know more about health matters and farming. They know where the cacao is going and that they are important to the world. They know that they are now earning much more money and they know their product better. The people feel better.
Q: How much has been invested in these achievements?
Valdivieso: For this initiative, $700,000 has been invested in training, physical structures, and technology. In the north alone we are now training 5,000 farmers. The project has been supported by various sources: Conservación y Desarrollo’s own funds; Elf Foundation in England, which helped us get started; the Swiss government; Overbrook Foundation; and the Ecuadorian Canadian Fund; among others. Rainforest Alliance has guided us in philosophical matters and convinced more people to think about and develop the project.
Q: Are other companies interested in producing chocolate with certified cacao?
Valdivieso: Other companies are interested. The idea is to sell to more companies, increase the certified area, and also to protect as much forest as possible nationally. The certified area is approximately half the nation in the south, and we are covering the north by training more farmers, so we can expand certification there as well.