Chocolate Lovers Abound — Never Has Development Tasted So Delicious

A brief story of Peru’s transition from coca to cacao

The women of Mishky Cacao. Once under threat from coca traders in the area, this female-owned business now sells its internationally recognized chocolate around the world. / Noelia Gutierrez, USAID

Tantalizing, rich chocolate aromas waft through the room. My mouth waters as our guide explains how chocolate is made, just a few kilometers away from where it is grown.

Never has international development smelled or tasted so delicious.

A chocolate-lover from an early age, I was ecstatic to join 30 internationally recognized chocolate makers for a trip along the Ruta de Cacao (cacao trail) in July 2016. This five-day tour through the Peruvian jungle region of San Martin shuttles international chocolatiers through farms and post-harvest facilities, toasting plants and tasting rooms, and serves to introduce potential buyers to the budding cacao industry in Peru.

Cacao is thriving in Peru today, in large part due to support from USAID.

You may ask, “But what does chocolate have to do with sustainable international development, or the Sustainable Development Goals?” Or, for the chocolate aficionados out there, you’re probably thinking “Chocolate is the cure-all for poverty and providing decent work and economic growth, right?” (I have thought about this same question, as I write this blog with a Peruvian chocolate bar in one hand and think about this week’s United Nations General Assembly).

International chocolatiers learn about Peru’s fine and aromatic cacao during a USAID co-sponsored “cacao tour” to connect producers with international buyers. / Laura Jagla, USAID

Well, the link between chocolate and sustainable development goals begins in a darker past. A little over a decade ago, San Martin was overrun by the coca industry, fueling insecurity, lawlessness and violence, making Peru the second largest producer of cocaine in the world. Coca traders reigned as the de facto authorities in the region, controlling all economic activity and imposing “taxes” on anyone they chose. As one woman from the Mishky Cacao cooperative in San Martín noted, “coca traders would threaten our families, but we had no other option [to make a living, besides coca].”

Cacao pods . Peruvian cacao comes in many varieties, each with its own flavor profile. /Laura Jagla, USAID

The solution was found deep in the Peruvian jungle, where, according to my new chocolatier friend, some of the most genetically diverse [and tasty] cacao trees in the world are grown.

Partnering with the Peruvian Government and the private sector to eradicate illicit coca production in San Martin, each dollar of USAID investment has leveraged at least one additional dollar of co-investment to help farmers transition from coca to cacao and other legal crops. The results have been amazing. In San Martin, coca cultivation has decreased from 18,680 hectares two decades ago, to just 311 hectares in 2015.

During my trip to San Martin, I heard the stories behind these numbers. Take Norma Sangama Tenazoa, for instance. Prior to USAID’s support in 2001, she was a coca farmer who encountered regular threats from coca traders. Now, she produces cocoa as part of the Asociacion Allima Cacao, an association of indigenous and mestizo ethnic groups with over 400 members.

Norma Sangama Tenazoa, a former coca producer, explains how working in cacao production has allowed her to support her family. /Noelia Gutierrez, USAID

In Norma’s words, “Thanks to cacao, my son is in college, and I am able to pay for his studies through my work here [at the Association].”

Another man’s story is equally compelling. Like most communities in the region during the 1990s, Olmedo’s family also grew coca. As a result of the coca-fueled violence in the area, he was kidnapped for ransom and lost his legs trying to escape. Several years later, his brother-in-law received USAID support to transition from growing coca to cacao. Now, despite his disability, Olmedo drives his family’s modified truck and transports cacao from his brother-in-law’s farm to buyers in the regional capital.

Olmedo, a former coca grower, was paralyzed as a result of narco-violence. Now, he works on his brother-in-law’s cacao farm, which earned him enough money to buy a wheelchair and a handicap-accessible truck to transport the cacao. /Laura Jagla, USAID

Last, but not least, take the case of the “Mishkies” — a group of beloved chocolate-producing female entrepreneurs of the San Martin valley. With USAID support, this group of 12 women formed Mishky Cacao, a cooperative that has since won numerous international awards for its high-quality chocolate. Sales are on the rise and the women are planning to expand their chocolate production facilities in the near term.

The chocolate industry in Peru continues to receive significant international recognition. According to renowned chocolate expert Martin Christy, “People from around the world are beginning to understand the complexity of fine cacao and the role of Peru as one of the most important countries [for cacao production] … people in Peru are now making some of the best chocolate in the world.”

Even beyond the renowned group of chocolate makers and experts who affirm the promise of the industry here, the effects of chocolate are evident — from the smiles and sing-song greeting of the women of Mishky Cacao, to the hundreds of hard-working cacao and chocolate makers who now support their families and run thriving businesses. I saw many of them on my five-day journey through San Martin.

In the end, everyone benefits. In Peru, USAID helped 31,744 families in planting or augmenting their cacao production in 2015 alone. This support has assisted hundreds of poor communities to transition to new licit economic opportunities and escape the terror of coca-fueled violence of the past. Cacao producers are now more connected to national and international markets than ever before and they are gaining increased recognition and income.

And, between 2005 and 2015, poverty has been cut in half in Peru, thanks in part to increased economic opportunities such as producing delicious chocolate.

Like I said, never has reaching the Sustainable Development Goals tasted so good.


About the Author

Laura Jagla is a communications specialist in USAID’s Bureau for Economic Growth, Education and Environment.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.