Pruning for Chocolate in the Amazon

By Kirk Siegler | October 26, 2015 | Ecuador

When cacao farmers like Emilio Rivera first heard of a government-backed initiative that would help them prune branches and leaves from their trees, they were skeptical.

After all, a lush, cacao tree with more, not fewer, branches meant more profits, they said. That’s been the traditional way of thinking for generations of cacao farmers here in the Ecuadorian Amazon.  

But in recent years, as disease has worsened, yields have dropped pretty dramatically, and some, like Rivera, have begun embracing the initiative wholeheartedly.

Emilio Rivera grows cacao and coffee on a small farm in the Ecuadorian Amazon that’s only reachable by boat. Photo by Kirk Siegler/NPR

Ecuador is one of the world’s biggest producers of cacao; the coveted, key ingredient in chocolate. Cacao is actually an edible fruit that’s fermented after harvest. Meanwhile, the fruit’s seeds (not edible, at least initially) are roasted and the ingredients are combined and eventually cooked from powder into a cocoa-like substance.  

Farmers like Rivera are at the beginning of a long chain of production, and his enthusiasm in the new “pruning brigades” no doubt partly stems from the fact that it’s free labor.  And don’t be fooled by a delicate sounding word like pruning.  It was actually a small army of workers that arrived at his farm earlier this year. They were carrying long chainsaws and other tools that made cutting and trimming branches quick and simple.  

The main idea is that clearing some of the highest, hard to reach branches will let in more sunlight, which is sometimes hard to come by under the dense canopy of the Amazon. Cacao trees grow naturally in the jungle. But the crop has also been cultivated in small farms like Rivera’s for years.

In one morning, a pruning brigade can do what it would take Rivera and his family three weeks to do by hand.  At the recent harvest, he got 600 pounds of cacao, compared with only 200 pounds before he took part in the initiative.  

“I’ve seen a big improvement,” Rivera says in Spanish through a translator.

One of Minga de Cacao’s pruning brigades demonstrating its work on a cacao farm along Ecuador’s Aguarico River. Photo by Kirk Siegler/NPR

Rivera farms on about an acre of cleared jungle along the banks of the Aguarico River in eastern Ecuador.  It’s about a fifteen minute ride – by motorized canoe – from the nearest village. It’s beautiful, even exotic feeling, when you finally arrive.  Yet this “global cradle of cacao production” as it’s often called is extremely remote. 

 Even the cacao farmers are cut off from each other.  Communication isn’t easy and it’s not the kind of place where an outsider can just expect to change things overnight.

“We have elderly people who told us they’d rather have their arms cut off than their branches,” says Ricardo Zapata, coordinator with Minga del Cacao, the group promoting and operating the “pruning brigades” with the help of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture.

Zapata hopes the early success on display by Rivera and some of his neighbors will be a model for other more skeptical farmers, or those who haven’t yet heard of the new techniques.  

The group, along with the Ministry, has a goal of pruning 80% of all of Ecuador’s cacao farms over the next two years. It’s an ambitious one. There are at least 120,000 acres of cacao farms across this South American country that’s roughly the size of Colorado.  But so far they’ve hired and trained more than a thousand pruners to work in more than a hundred brigades.

A piece of cacao cut open to reveal its fruit. The seeds, in particular, hidden at the center of the fruit, are a key ingredient in chocolate production. Photo by Kirk Siegler/NPR

This kind of bold commitment that could ultimately boost exports, as Ecuador’s economy otherwise sours, isn’t necessarily a surprise. Cacao is one of the world’s most lucrative crops, after all.  All but five percent of what’s grown here is now exported. Ecuadorian-produced chocolate is famous and fetches a premium price at market – not to mention at upmarket grocery stores in the United States.

As for Emilio Rivera, whose main source of income is cacao, he told me his recent success with the pruning initiative has him eying a possible expansion.  

Whether or not there is funding for the free brigades to return next season may not matter. He said he’s been learning some of their techniques and he and his family could do most of the work on their own if need be.

Kirk Siegler is reporting from Ecuador on a fellowship with the International Reporting Project (IRP). This post was also published on NPR's On the Road.

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