Cacao Reforestation

We journeyed across Nicaragua from the South into the mountains of the Northern department of Matagalpa in search of the best cacao beans we could find. As budding bean to bar chocolate makers, it was clear that the quality of our beans would be the most crucial element in our entire chocolate making process.

After a day full of chicken bus adventures and multiple transfers, we finally made it. The exhaustion from a 12-hour journey quickly dissipated when we met our friend, Jonathan from Enliven Cacao. He picked us up in his 4-wheel drive truck and we spent the next day cruising around dirt roads and lush forests in the middle of a tropical storm.

At first glance it didn’t look anything like what we had imagined a cacao plantation to be. We were struck by the bio-diversity, it was more wild rainforest than farm. The cacao trees seamlessly blended into a landscape full of plants and animals giving life to the term “food forest.”

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When we’d arrive at a farmer’s home, we were consistently struck by how clean and organized they were. They shared with us a deep appreciation for the transformation taking place in their lives and are proud of their work stewarding heirloom cacao trees and rare genetics. There was a real sense of dignity about all of it. We visited the fermentation facility and were met by many farmers from the region, all eager to discuss the potential of their fine cacao being enjoyed by people around the world.

We had a chance to behold what many fine organizations and people who came before us helped seed; we got to experience what we had read about so many times. We’re grateful to the indigenous people of the Northern regions of Nicaragua for their deep-rooted connection to this plant and to all the generations behind us who we continue to learn from. We’re grateful to the people at Ingemann Fine Cacao who first came to Nicaragua in 2007 as bee-keepers, discovered one of those ‘best kept secrets,’ and have spent the better part of the last decade propagating heirloom cacao and providing micro-financing and extensive training for farmers throughout the region. We’re grateful that our friends from Enliven Cacao have further spread heirloom cacao and training all over the region in a co-op based direct trade model.

Jonathan, one of the pioneers of Enliven Cacao, visited Nicaragua while working on his master’s degree in social development. He fell in love with the country and met his wife, Anielka, who was working on finding solutions for women’s health problems in the lowest income communities across Nicaragua. Together, they bought a farm in the heart of the cacao-growing region and through Enliven Cacao and the Lilly Project, have dedicated their lives to improving the quality of life for the local communities of Nicaragua. It’s a been a pleasure to work with Enliven Cacao as our sourcing and fermenting partners and we are honored to know Jonathan and Anielka.

The history of this region is written in the landscape. We saw thousands of acres of former rainforest that had been macheted to the ground in order to make way for cattle, coffee, beans, and corn; all crops that were ‘supposed’ to yield great benefit and economic prosperity. However, the deforestation coupled with steep slopes and heavy rainfall resulted in soil erosion and dangerous landslides. The hidden costs of the extra inputs needed to sustain these intensive crops (i.e. fertilizers, seeds every year, fungicides, pesticides, etc.) was making this venture far less successful than anticipated. The highly volatile prices in commodity markets resulted in no income stability from year to year. The farmers were left with degraded soil, erosion & landslides, less economic opportunity, and they weren’t happy about it.

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The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, a not-for-profit organization in collaboration with the United States Department of Agriculture, has recently designated the Northern region of Nicaragua as one of a few worldwide where the cacao tree originates. Cacao has been growing here for more generations than we know and has been an integral part of the natural ecosystem. There is no need for irrigation, fertilization, herbicides, pesticides, fungicides, or any other intervention beyond light pruning; nature does the work. Cacao cultivation requires about half the labor of coffee, and can be harvested for 10 months of the year, roughly every 2 weeks.

Farmers were largely unaware of the value in the cacao trees growing wild all over the region and they lacked the organization, information and equipment to engage this golden opportunity.

We buy our cacao beans from our friends at Enliven Cacao, a non-profit organization, that empowers farmers through community events, technical training, mentorship, and community enhancement support.

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Enliven buys fermented cacao from a self-organized co-op community group in La Dalia, Nicaragua and works closely with leaders of the cooperative. These leaders are the key to sustainable progress and preservation of cacao, and for any chance at a measurable increase in the quality of life for their community. Enliven recognizes that charity isn’t effective at solving the wide complexity of struggles faced by subsistence farming communities throughout the world; charity can result in cycles of dependence, which defeats the entire point. In our collaboration with Enliven, our aim is to create a cycle of empowerment, regeneration and a growing notion of ‘Yes, we can!’ for the farmers we trade with. 

Any farm in the surrounding community of La Dalia who meets Enliven’s strict standard for organic and ethical practices is welcome to sell their raw beans to the community group leaders. Enliven makes interest free loans to the co-op leaders who directly purchase cacao from individual farmers. These leaders are then responsible for fermentation, drying and post-harvest processing. As part of Enliven’s non-profit directive, they have brought in industry experts and technicians to the community, and have awarded scholarships for farmers to receive specialized trainings from Ingemann Fine Cacao. These 50 farming families have successfully cultivated tens of thousands of new cacao trees.

After this step is when Enliven purchases the beans from the co-op at a stable premium price suggested by the farmers, and then sells them directly to fine chocolate makers. All of the surplus from these transactions is reinvested back into the local community in a multitude of forms, all in pursuit of a more holistic community enhancement platform. Enliven has set up a post-harvest fermentation facility and has brought electricity to the community. They are training farmers in propagation, resulting in reforestation of thousands of acres of clear-cut mountains.

All trees being planted are local landrace genetics native to this region. Through this process of reforestation, Enliven and the farmers are helping in the preservation and evolution of heirloom varieties. The Cacao trees are interspaced with other indigenous species, helping restore the region to its natural state. These cacao forests are incredibly biodiverse and create sanctuary for wildlife including bees and other pollinators. Cacao has become a medium for economic, ecologic, and social regeneration.

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We decided to buy the first 100 pounds of raw cacao, direct trade. We loaded back onto the public transit and began our long journey south to the coast of Nicaragua to begin the exciting process of transforming beans into bars.

We travel back to the mountains to pick up everyone one of our cacao shipments in person and maintain a close relationship with the enliven farmers.