Buses from Toronto ,NY, New Jersey, Miami, Chicago , Connecticut etc & Planes from Ecuador all came to WashingtonDC to show support and solidarity for indigenous people of the Ecuadorian amazon against Chevron Texaco
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
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