The hidden treasure of the Bolivian jungle

Guido Mercado Julio

Native of a Villa Alba, a community surrounded by cocoa trees, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon, even after years living in Santa Cruz he never forgot his origin, his family and people. Graduated in engineering, he currently combines his work activity with actions aimed at improving the living conditions of the community, with the use and protection of the wild forest that grows in the area. Author of novels depicting the everyday life of the people of his youth and father of three adventurous children, Guido is one of our best guide and friend in the Bolivian wild land.

– Translated by Giulia Porrini –

El chocolate” (pronounced chocolhatay), the way people call Theobroma cacao in the Bolivian Amazons, grows wild in big forested areas, known as “islas” (islands in Spanish) in the hot and humid plains of the Bolivian Amazonian basin, mainly in the Beni, La Paz, Santa Cruz and Pando departments.

El chocolate is a product of paramount importance in of the Bolivian Amazons culture. Indigenous people consider this plant as unique and are certain it is native of this area. It seems logical in fact to consider the Amazon as its birthplace, considering it offers all the climatic conditions Theobroma cacao requires to grow, especially considering temperature and humidity.

De facto it is not totally certain how this plant has been introduced in the Amazon territory, especially considering that it is endemic to inaccessible areas of the riverbank. Evidences suggest that cocoa has been used as an exchange good between the indigenous tribes of the Andean areas many years before the arrival of Europeans in the land now called América. This seems to indicate that either cocoa is native of the region, either it has been introduced there through the pre-hispanic migration from central to South America. According to another theory, cocoa arrived in the region due to the Jesuit missions in the 18th century. This is not easy to prove considering the extremely isolated and remote areas where the islas de chocolate developed. However, in Bolivia the endemic variety is unique and criolla (“native” in Spanish, term used to describe the local, pure variety). Moreover, in the upstream area of the river Iténez it is possible to find a particular cocoa variety considered primitive, characterized by a rough and spiny skin.

One of the characterizing features of the cocoa tree is its permanent verdant state, it never sheds its leaves. They are renovated permanently providing a constant shade around the tree, preventing the evaporation of the water present in the soil and maintaining the needed high percentage of humidity. Entering the so-called islas, the big areas where the cocoa trees grow in a great number, you will immediately perceive a pleasant reduction of the temperature which, outside, exceeds the 35°C in full sun.

The Bolivian islas. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

In the first half of the past century, cocoa plantations had a very important role for the livelihood of the rural communities of this area. Farmers harvested the fruits and traded the beans in the form of panes, flat balls of cocoa made of beans roasted and manually grounded. The panes are used to prepare a traditional drink, the most common way to consume cocoa by the indigenous people. In more recent years, cocoa production experienced a decline, mainly due to two factors. The first one is related to the introduction in the market of cocoa-derived products mostly manufactured outside the country. In particular, we refer to the instant cocoa powder, a product which makes easier and faster the preparation of the drinking chocolate, providing a faster alternative to the traditional method. This method entails the following sequence of steps: grate the “cocoa ball” in water, make it boil, then vigorously stir with a wooden whisk called molinillo. This tool helps the emulsion of the fat in the water in order to obtain a frothy drink. The instant cocoa powder, instead, only requires to be poured in hot water. It is a time-saving product and responds to the needs of the faster rhythm of modern life. In these times, it seems that there is no time to waste, no more space for the traditional drink crafted by the farmers. The second factor, probably the most significant, is determined by the increase in the cattle-breeding sector and in the mechanized cropping of soya, rice and others. Because of that, big portions of forest, which include wild plantations of cocoa, are cut down and transformed into pastures and intensive cropping. The remaining wild cocoa crops localized in remote areas, following the course of rivers, are less attractive to farmers. Besides, flooding-susceptible for at least 3 months a year these areas are also at risk of disappearing.

Market in Trinidad, Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

It is actually their inaccessibility and remoteness which guarantee the “purity” of the native cocoa growing in this region. In fact, although foreign varieties have been introduced in the country, they have not reached the islas of wild cocoa in the Amazonian Plain. The introduction of new varieties has been experimented in the sub Andean region including the Northern part of La Paz Department and South of Cochabamba. In this area cocoa crops are properly managed during the whole plantation process, whereas, as we are going to explain afterwards, in the Amazons there is no human interaction other than the harvesting.

Once a year, farmers living in the communities settled on the proximity of the rivers relatively close to the islas of cocoa organize expeditions in the jungle to collect the beans. In this area cocoa fruits get ripe during the rainy season, from December to March. Farmers navigate the rivers in flood and through inundated pampas up to 5 days on board of rustic traditional boats. They settle camps in the islas and they stay there all the necessary time to obtain the final product. Farmers harvest, break the fruits, collect the beans and let them drain in hanging bags locally knitted using palm leaves for three/four days. Then, cocoa beans are spread on the top of palm leaves and left there drying under the sun. When beans are ready, farmers get back on their boats and transport the dried beans to the closest market to sell them. The harvest time is off, and nobody goes back to the cocoa islas until the following year. During this time, it is up to the wild fauna to guarantee the survival of the crop spreading the seeds around the islas.

The whole family participates in the expeditions. Women and children generally follow the men in the plantations leaving homes and schools, being exposed to jungle dangers and diseases: the raining season in fact is the period in which mosquitos and midges are the most prolific. In some cases, the family splits temporarily in order to protect the children from these risks: children remain in the communities with family relatives while parents deal with the harvesting activities in the plantations.

Mostly, farmers use the so-called “habilito” system in order to make possible the expedition to the wild cocoa forest. This system consists in using funding to cover food supplies and other expedition costs with the commitment of paying it back with part or the totality of the beans sale profit.

The cocoa local market is small, and the beans quality is not high enough to qualify them suitable for the upscale international market. Farmers know the offer is high considering the small market and is concentrated in the same short period. They try to sell their yield as fast as possible, while the price lowers dramatically. The income then hardly compensates the sacrifices made and do not provide the condition to improve farmers living conditions, causing more and more the abandonment of this traditional harvesting practices.

The biggest communities in the area are Camiaco and Gundonovia. Camiaco is located at around 100km from Trinidad, the capital of the Beni Department, and they are connected by an unpaved road built 5 years ago. However, during the raining season this road is unpassable and the only alternative is travelling by canoes. Gundanovia is located 3 days of navigation from Camiaco, through the fast-flowing river Mamoré and its tributary the river Sécure.

As mentioned before, farmers enter the wild cocoa islas once a year and only to collect fruits, they do not implement pruning or any other plant management practices. This results in a lower yield per hectare compared to the plantations where management activities are carried out. However, the low productivity is compensated by the considerable islas size and the absence of maintenance costs. On the other hand, this practice guarantees the total naturality of the production, the ecosystem protection and the conservation of the abundant local fauna.

In the last years, cocoa produced in Baures (central area of Beni department) has been presented by some private enterprises at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris obtaining excellent results. Back in 2013 this cocoa has been awarded as one of the 18-best cocoa of the world. Cocoas produced in different areas of the country are following the same path with similar good expectation, cocoa produced in Riberalta (northern part of Beni) is one example. This reflects the resurgence of cocoa farming in the regional economy and the farmers’ reconsideration and exploitation of the treasure hidden in the Bolivian Amazonian Plain.

The most unseen and concealed cocoa is the one growing in the Southern part of Beni, on the shore of the river Mamoré, the “mother of the waters” in the local language, in the Marbán province, probably due to its remoteness. The closest community is in fact Camiaco, reachable only by water during the whole raining season.

People living in the communities of this region are getting aware of the importance to protect and rationally take advantage of the islas’ natural product who they consider as a hidden treasure. They want to preserve cocoa trees for its economic, ecologic and nutritional value: a perfect habitat for a rich fauna which efficiently captures CO2. They are making efforts to prevent the cutdown of the islas, its fall in private hands, or its replacement with other crops, as well as the introduction of foreign cocoa varieties that could negatively affect the present ecosystem.

This commitment toward the protection of the area has been boosted even more by a sensory analysis of the islas wild cocoa, realized in Europe. The promising results are particularly positive in comparison with the cocoa of other Bolivian regions, due to its distinctive aroma, taste and texture. From the same study, it has been recognized that some improvements need to be implemented in the post-harvest activities, in order to enhance the beans quality. On their side, farmers express the need for training, support, as well as post-harvest equipment, realizable using local natural materials. In this sense, it would be helpful to create a pilot farmers group which will commit to implement these recommended good practices. The idea is that the resulting high-quality product will be then feasible to enter an upscale market and be sold at a higher price justifying the effort made.

Another useful action would be to build some collection centres in the communities nearby the islas in order to centralize the post-harvesting activities. Farmers will transport the ripe mazorcas, the cocoa fruits, from the plantations to the collection centres where women will be in charge of the fermentation and drying processes. The mazorcas transport will be realized by water on barges, which guarantee quality, hygiene and are apt to maintain the fruits’ characteristics. In this way, women will contribute to the family income without leaving the community. Children as well will not interrupt their attendance at school. The financing system often needed now, the so-called habilito, would cease to be required and a higher income would result from the sale of a higher quality product. The guarantee of a higher family income will respond to the superior effort surely needed. However, in order to put into practise these ideas the need for a financial and practical external support is undeniable.

In the same region, but in an area further away from the river and the wild cocoa islas, there are other little villages and farmers communities which exploit the production of cocoa criollo growing spontaneous in the gardens. Given the small plantation extension, the production is very low, but the quality looks similar to that of the wild islas. This can be explained by the fact that both trees belong to the same, local variety and are part of the same ecosystem in terms of environmental temperature, humidity and soil characteristics.

On the way to Camiaco, reachable only by water during the raining season.
Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Inhabitants of these rural communities, among which we can mention Villa Alba, San Andrés and San Lorenzo, belonging to the municipality of San Andrés in the province of Marbán, live of traditional and rudimentary cropping, using manual tools and producing goods like yuca, plantain, rice, corn, sugar cane etc. In addition, they exploit the fruit trees spontaneously growing in the gardens or canchones (enclosed fields arising around the houses), mainly cocoa, avocado, citrus fruits, achaicharu’ (fruiting tree related to the mangosteen), mango etc.

Young people of the communities generally work seasonally in cattle farms of the area as labourers or move to the capital Trinidad, where they mainly find work as builders. During the raining season, villages and fields remain under the water for long time and crops can be lost while cattle farmers need to move to other dried regions. The dried season, whose peak is generally from July to November, is also very intense. The high temperature and the lack of rain make the pastures and forests very dry and at risk of fire. The shortage of water in the areas further away from the rivers frequently causes fish and cattle mortality. Cocoa plantations, instead, are not affected by the drought as heavily as other crops thanks to the thick layer of their own dried leaves covering the ground. This leaves coating maintains the humidity in the soil while providing the nutrients to the plants through decomposition.

Rural communities take advantage of the fruits of their small cocoa plantations for the domestic consumption and sell the extra in the local market. These communities support the farmers who harvest cocoa in the islas along the river. They hope one day to be part of a bigger market meeting the expected demand increase through the shift of lands from pastures to cocoa plantations. This would be the way towards a good improvement of farmers quality of life.

After this presentation of the cocoa farming in Bolivia, we want to present also a little tale by the same author which describes from a closer point of view farmers life in the communities.

It is 5 in the morning, and the first light of the day paints the horizons with all the possible colours above the turbid water of the river Mamoré, “the mother of the waters”. The river is at its highest level and floods where the land is low and the streams run, inundating the pampa and most of the jungle. There is hustle at the port of Camiaco, a rural village consisting in an assembly of wooden huts. Roofs are made of leaves of motacú or chuchío palm, a species of cane which grows copious on the riverbank. Three “chocolateros” families bid farewell/take leave to relatives and friends and get ready to get on their rustic boat to go harvest in the chocolatales on the riverside. They will navigate for 3 days to reach the plantations, in big remote virgin islas (islands), where they will stay during one, two or three months. For this reason, they delegate the job of looking after their hens, homes, ducks to whom remains in the village. The cropping has been flooded so there is no job left to do, except to prevent the cattle from invading the banana and plantain plantations and collect the fruits.

Street of the community of Camiaco during the raining season.
Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Camiaco is the last small village in the southern Beni department which is reachable by road. However, this road lies unused during the summer or raining season, which they call el tiempo de agua, “time of water”. During this period of time, which generally lasts 3 months, the unique way is by water. Canoes equipped with oars or outboard motors gain importance while mainland paths lie abandoned. They navigate on rivers, streams, flooded lowlands and pampas looking for the most direct way to get to the closest community which, in the case of Camiaco, is Loreto, the capital of the province. Recently, electricity has been provided but people are not used to it yet, they keep going to bed early in the evening and getting up at dawn. The river is the main water supplier for generic uses, while the drinking water comes from a borehole without any potabilization/purification treatment. There is no sewage service and the mosquito net is indispensable to keep the mosquito away while sleeping.

In this side of the world, the word chocolate refers to the cocoa tree, the mazorca (the fruit), the beans or seed, the paste obtained from the roasted and grounded beans, the delicious hot drink… The cacao islas, “cocoa island”, are called chocolatal. Cocoa trees grow wild, not being planted by anyone and farmers harvest them for their daily consumption. Cocoa grows all around their houses in all the villages of the area, so they do not bother planting more cocoa. Their main activity regard other cropping, especially yucca, corn and rice. Indigenous people here think that cocoa is a blessing, a gift from the nature, essential part of their diet. They roast the beans and prepare a cocoa paste, panes de chocolate, gently simmered and served steaming, pure or with milk. They make a delicious gallinazo, a traditional plate very similar to the arroz con leche (rice with milk) recipe, but with hot chocolate instead of milk, or prepare tujuré, corn dough cooked with chocolate.

El chocolate, or “chucraté” in the local dialect (one of the 36 indigenous Bolivian languages), is a fruit kindly dispensed by the abundant nature of the endless Amazonian forest of the Beni region. Here it grows since immemorial times, nobody planted it, it grows wild like all the other trees of the jungle grow, maybe transported with the pre Colombian migrations or maybe native to this region of the world, then spread in the rest of South America through these very migrations. What is certain is that it is there, growing in the houses’ courtyards, in the middle of the forest and in the huge “islands” on the riverbank.

The islas located on the rivers shore are far away from the human settlements and are, hence, completely wild, virgin, pure, belonging to a variety considered “criolla” (“native” in Spanish). Its propagators are natural: monkeys, parrots, wild boars and squirrels. They have a natural defence: they are far away from big human settlements, without any communication or interaction with them until its fruits are ready to be collected in the raining season and the area lies flooded for approximately three months. Only the efforts of those locals who dare to face the river navigating on a fragile boat, to deal with the dangers of the jungle, to fight with mosquito clouds and to risk to fall sick, to build unstable camps using natural materials found in the jungle itself, like branches, palm and leaves  surviving at least a month with what they manage to get from the nature: fish, wild animal’s meat, fruits and, obviously, chocolate.

They collect the fruits, open them and dry the beans in the same place, fighting with the rain and the mosquitos. The work is hard and demanding but the family is united and strong, they know about the risks and are used to sacrifice. Farmers are protected from the unforgiving sun by the impenetrable canopy, the temperature is tolerable in the shade despite the average temperature of 34° C and while harvesting workers enjoy the unique flavour of the pulp surrounding the beans. Children are agile and expert in climbing the thin branches and get to the most difficult fruits; women are fast and precise opening the mazorcas and are in charge of the meal preparation, using the limited ingredients to feed the family; men bring the beans to the camp carrying heavy bags. There, beans will be fermented in hanging bags and dried spread on palm leaves knitted in a forest clearing. They are constantly attentive to the roar of the jaguar or the presence of a sneaky rattlesnake; the birds singing is warning the danger. They hunt and fish in the chocolatal and its surroundings helped by the dogs, their irreplaceable companion.

Wild nature of Beni Department, Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

The reward will come when they will be back at the community’s port with their precious cargo.  some of it will be deliver to whom supported them through the “habilito” system, the trader who financed food and expenses for the travel. What is left will be sold preferably to a known trader or to the best bidder. Everything goes to the local market; they do not know that this treasure could be sold to the other side of the world.

The harvest is off, and the forest will be waiting a year for the gatherers to come back during the following season. Until that moment it will not receive any human visit and its natural permanent inhabitants will be again in command, enjoying the perpetual shade and the late fruits. Boars, birds, insects, reptiles, predators…the wildlife will continue harmoniously with the wild cocoa.

I do not know if it is the lush jungle, the green colour of the forest and the pampa, if it is the river or the closeness with such a plentiful and diverse fauna, the hot climate, the humidity or the chocolate which they consumed so abundantly; what is certain is that people who harvest this incredible fruit in the middle of the jungle are always joyous. Walking barefoot they sing, their clothes torn apart and they smile, you bring them in the middle of the forest and they dance, receiving a low income for their hard work and they carry out other jobs singing, whistling, smiling, cultivating the land and fishing in the river…They live like the wild cocoa trees growing on the riverbank: in complete harmony with the nature. They are guardians like the river, extremely welcoming they open their arms towards everybody like trees.

When you eat some chocolate, you can taste the exuberant wilderness, the flavour of the forest, the river, the rain, the soil, the shade, the sacrifice, the efforts, the goodness. Enjoy, and send a grateful thought to the men who live in the forest, who is offering you a treasure, his treasure.