Eco Cacao, A Story of Regeneration at Origin

Eco Cacao, near the coast of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Photo by Gregory Landau

The concept of “regeneration” is often used in conversation around social impact, finance models and agriculture, but what does it really mean? In this series Yellow Seed will explore: 1) what are useful ways to define and think about the concept? and 2) how can theory be translated into action and practice? We will delve into the concept of regeneration through real stories from the cacao industry, from producer, to supplier, to consumer. We intend to spark a deeper conversation about meaningful impact and the work we can do together to improve the system. We begin by getting a first-hand look into a pioneering cacao cooperative in Ecuador that is putting regeneration-based agriculture to the test.

Photo by Gregory Landau

The regenerative cacao cooperative of Eco Cacao

“When you go into the plantation, you wouldn’t know it’s actually a farm. It looks and feels just like a tropical forest,” described Daniel Korson of Coracao Confections in Oakland, California. His search to find a sourcing partner that mirrored Coracao’s values of transparency and ecological conservation took him to Esmeraldas, Ecuador where a regenerative cacao farm is set in the lush Ecuadorian jungle. The farm is part of a producer co-operative called Eco Cacao, co-founded in 2006 by George Fletcher and the Ecuadorian permaculture and Seed Guardians Community (www.redsemillas.org), a grassroots network that works with communities to preserve the bio-cultural diversity of the Ecuador. Gregory Landau, CEO of Terra Genesis International and founder of Nova Chocolate, began collaborating with Eco Cacao in 2006 with a strong vision: to support the local community in evolving their agricultural practices towards regenerative growing, and to create practices that also conserve the local Chocóan rainforest, an area of immense biodiversity. Now, Eco Cacao works to empower 80 farmers on 320 hectares dispersed across the Galera-San Francisco Peninsula, many of whom specialize in unique, high-quality varietals. Eco Cacao is part of a larger cooperative (UOPROCAE) which has a total of 1600 hectares.

Photo by Gregory Landau

In the past 5 years, direct, responsible sourcing has become increasingly important. Serendipity led Daniel to meet Gregory Landua at a conference, who then invited him to visit one of their farms. “Eco Cacao is leading the way in terms of walking their talk and being fully transparent. As an ambassador of cacao to my community, I want to know exactly how the cacao is grown and processed, the details of the farm and management, and how the producers and the environment are being treated. Eco Cacao makes it easy to share and amplify that story.” However, Daniel confessed that direct sourcing has not always been that simple. “After, being in the industry for 8 years, there are people who say they are doing their best, but often times they will not let you see ‘what’s behind the curtain.’”

On his visit, Daniel followed Gregory through the cacao-filled forest, “As we were walking, Gregory was chopping down brush with his machete to find the trail. As it fell to the ground, he would point out which species preserved nitrogen and which fertilized the soil. The forest was so loud with different bugs and birds. It is really a refuge for biodiversity.” As part of their business practices, Eco Cacao’s producers actively engage in restoring damaged landscapes; adding functional biodiversity, providing wildlife habitats, improving water cycles and creating conservation corridors where animals and plant life can flourish. In this holistic approach to regeneration, humans actually work for, not against, the natural landscape. Creativity and design ingenuity are able to “do good” and help renew local ecology. “Eco Cacao is the only cacao farm I’ve visited that is doing farming in a way that is not only preserving nature, but also steadily improving the natural environment,” says Daniel.

Gregory Landua at Eco Cacao

Similarly, Liam Blackmon, Co-founder and COO of CACOCO sought out a sourcing partner that held similar ethical and ecological standards. “I think of CACOCO as an innovator brand company. We could have done anything really. We saw a need for people to become reconnected with the sources of their food and an opportunity to enable consumers all over the planet to invest in improving ecological and cultural systems through our brand.” Liam met Gregory at a model permaculture farm in Tennessee, and the two bonded over a shared vision for designing systems where people can be interwoven with nature and support one another. “Well designed agroforestry systems or polyculture forests can be interwoven with tropical jungle as well as cash and subsistence crops so that communities can both make a living and live off the land,” Liam explains. Several years later, Gregory invited Liam to visit Eco Cacao. “When I visited Eco Cacao for the first time, I was blown away by everything we saw. The vision was a reality. At the cooperative, I witnessed an enormous sense of care, peer-education and collaboration in the community. And I liked how there was a sense of global multi-culturalism there. For example, one farm owner was really into ecological design, biology and botany and his land was filled with all these amazing plants, another member was happy living simply, growing cacao and tending to family, and other farm owner was a community connector and president of the local chapter devoting time to community education. I realized a regenerative approach is quite easy and possible when there is a culture to support it.”

What stands between the cocoa industry and regenerative practices?

The region of Esmeraldas, where Eco Cacao was founded, is rich with fine and aromatic varieties of cacao which often grow in biodiverse agroforestry systems. Eco Cacao grows ‘nacional complex’, a varietal that is a mix of EET clones from Ecuador’s nacional hybridization program. High quality varieties such as nacional, while prized for their aroma and flavor, are often challenged by poor yields and greater susceptibility to disease. As a result, producers in the region experience difficulty in achieving a meaningful livelihood from cacao, their primary cash crop. Without greater market appreciation for genetic diversity, flavor or conservation value, prices for these special varietals of cacao are often too low to incentivize production.

These Nacional beans are known for their sweet aroma and fine flavor, yet they are often smaller in size and producer fewer yields than hybrid varieties that grown in full sun. Photo by Daniel Korson.

Furthermore, less than 10% of cacao that is sold and consumed worldwide is from shade grown or tree-based agroforestry systems; methods that are key in preserving biodiversity. Where a diverse shaded canopy is used, cacao farms support higher levels of diversity than with most other tropical crops. Plants and animals can thrive in a more natural habitat that co-exists with the cacao. Also, as global attention focuses on solutions for climate change, we should note that agroforestry based cacao farms play a vital role in capturing carbon dioxide. Cacao agroforestry systems can sequester 41 metric tons of carbon per hectare annually, making them a true superstar of carbon farming, as opposed to the relatively low one to six metric tons of carbon per hectare annually by systems focusing on soil regeneration alone. (Carbon Farming Solution, E. Toensmeier, 2016)

Forests of Eco Cacao, Photo by Gregory Landau
Eco Cacao, overlooking the coast of Esmeraldas, Ecuador. Photo by Daniel Korson.

Ecuador was once renowned for cultivation of fine-flavored native varietals, but now faces rapid crop homogenization using CCN-51, a special hybrid selectively bread for traits such as productivity and disease resistance. Because it requires full sun, CCN-51 is often a monoculture crop. Justin Polgar of Yes Cacao shares his experience visiting Ecuador during Session 1 of the Collaborative Trade Accelerator, a multi-stakeholder initiative led by Yellow Seed, aimed at improving transparency and trust in the supply chain. “I was driving for three hours and all I saw was hectares and hectares of the same type of cacao. I wondered, what’s really going on here? So, my friend contacted a place growing CCN-51 and asked ‘where he could buy some, and what was needed in order to grow it?’ The man replied, ‘see these liquids? [pesticides, herbicides, fungicides] If you buy these products from us, then we’ll give you the plant starts [for free] and you’ll have pods in two years. Everything will be great!’” Greg D’Alesandre, Cacao ‘Sourcerer’ of Dandelion Chocolate, a bean to bar chocolate company in San Francisco, empathizes with the producer’s decision by adding economic context: “In fairness, if I were a farmer in Ecuador, I would grow CCN-51. It grows 3x as much, it’s disease resistant and it’s super hardy. Does it taste good? No, it’s not great, but it’s not awful. But the real question is: are [specialty buyers] paying 3x market price for cacao now? Most people are not. Dandelion pays 2–2.5x. But 3x is a lot, so if you’re a farmer and you’re like, ‘I could grow 3x as much cacao for that much more money,’ it becomes a financial decision.”

How can we encourage regenerative approaches to development?

Regenerative design and practices can help combat some of these issues. Eco Cacao, for example, saw an opportunity to combat a degenerative trend in cacao growing, taking a more holistic approach to conservation and economic development. “Regeneration is a living dynamic process,” explains Gregory in “Seeing Regeneration,” an article outlining the concept of regeneration and its principles. Regeneration does much more than heal the ecosystem; it also creates alliances, nourishes local traditions, and brings together farming communities. Gregory adds, “It’s all about growing capacity through concrete relationships, rather than a set of check- lists. An integrative, regenerative approach means that people are engaging in the process and benefiting greatly from the style of work”.

George Fletcher, Co-founder of Eco Cacao. Video footage shot at origin.

In a video interview, George Fletcher, co-founder and coordinator of Eco Cacao explains the importance of honoring community and ecological revitalization through economic gain, “The main reason for forming Eco Cacao is to get better prices for the producers, to become certified as Organic and Fair Trade and to work in a more organized way. It also enables us to connect with buyers and organizations that want to work on projects together in a direct partnership.” The benefits extend not only to producers, but also to the local environment: “I believe that this project helps the people here to be more concerned for and conscious about the environment. They care more for our natural resources, and this also impacts the local quality of life. We now have clean water, healthy food, and also healthier community relations.”

Photo by Gregory Landau
A break from a communal work parties known as ‘minga.’ Photo by Gregory Landau.

In Ecuador, strength through community is also shown through the local concept of a ‘minga’. This is a rotational work party, where members of a farming community get together to share labor and best practices to improve one another’s farms. This may include planting trees, training on genetic selection, pruning and disease control, designing land contours, watershed restoration or creating compost toilets. Members of the minga also receive an additional dividend from product sales at the end of each year for their participation. In this way, community collaboration strengthens both the whole and the individual, sharing knowledge and resources that keep the cacao community thriving. Fabiola Mosquera, a member of the cooperative shares in an interview, “For me, this initiative gives a lot of life to the land and to this community. Through the communal work exchanges, we are restoring the soil and biodiversity and we know each other a lot more in the community because we share our knowledge with each other. It is doing a lot to benefit communities.”

Fabiola Mosquera, Cooperative member, Photo by Gregory Landau
Fabiola Mosquera, Cooperative member. Still from video footage.

How can we invest in a culture of regeneration?

Buyers and consumers can play a powerful role to grow the movement of regeneration through choice, fair reward and a little creative innovation. “How we invest our money is incredibly important to me,” explains Ira Leibtag, CEO of Cholaca, a chocolate company in Boulder, CO who sources with Eco Cacao. “I care what impact I can have on this planet, and I realize I can do my part to contribute to a growing system, not a destructive one.” In an interview, he leans over as if he is confessing a secret, “Like other business owners, I have my own constraints to keep the business going, to represent my shareholders and to support my employees. After a meeting, one of my investors asked me, ‘Hey Ira, how are you going to protect your supply chain? For example, say 3 years from now, you call up your source and they have run out of supply?So, this got me thinking of how I might work more closely with our supplier partners at origin to build their capacity and support the growth of these projects.” He smiled, “I’m a numbers guy. After working through spreadsheets, I realized we had the opportunity to redesign our business model to help people, save rainforests and also be a profitable business.”

Photo by Daniel Korson

Regeneration is a paradigm shift. It’s a new way of seeing the world and investing in strengthening our relationships to the earth, the people we care about and those who support us. It is truly an environmental, social and business commitment, with a far reaching and increasingly crucial positive influence in growing areas. An awareness to source sustainably is perhaps the single most important decision we can make, ensuring a healthy future for the ‘food of the gods’ we all love.

Resources on Eco Cacao and Regeneration

Visit Yellow Seed to learn more about Eco Cacao and support this cooperative via the purchase of its beans, wafers from Cholaca or the awesome products created from this source.

http://www.regenerativeagriculturedefinition.com/

To learn more about the practices of this origin see http://www.finkaekolado.com/ and http://www.regenerativecacao.com/. To see principles and carbon calculations for level 1 visit the definition of regenerative agriculture website and add your thoughts!

Terra Genesis outlines 4 levels of Regeneration in their latest white paper, placing Eco Cacao between Integrative and Systemic level of regeneration. The primary goal of level 1 is to regenerate soil, whereby the goal of level 2 is to grow the health and vitality of the whole living ecosystem and level 3 is a culture and way of thinking to evolve and grow multiple level of value streams. This white paper is a great guide for those wanting to design and grow these systems.

About the Author:

Nancy is passionate about designing systems for collaboration and practical ways we can work together for mutual benefit of people and planet. She is a co-founder of two non-profit impact driven enterprises; Yellow-Seed facilitates connection between farmers at origin and emerging markets, and Wild Forests and Fauna (WFF) supports local leadership in conservation of wild forest frontiers. In her 20’s, she was a film editor and motion graphics designer and is finding she still enjoys weaving stories. If you have any feedback or ways to improve these articles, feel free to share directly to nancy (at) yellow-seed.org

Please see this article for the intention of these stories.

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