Cacao is sowing life

The earth is very fertile in the mountains around San Jose de Apartado and since the seventies, when migrant farmers colonised these lands, bringing with them the seeds of the first cacao trees in this part of Uraba in Northeastern Colombia, this became cacao territory.

But during the nineties, Uraba was hard hit by the war and the paramilitary takeover, community leaders were murdered and the people forced to flee, and the cacao trees dried up because war hurts nature too.  Little by little, the farmers came back to their lands, and regenerated the cacao plantations by working in groups. Today they proudly produce seventy tonnes per year of 100% organic cacao which they call Chocopaz, and which is becoming known around the world for its quality and for what it represents: an alternative farming economy.

peace community
Until the seventies, the region was little known, covered in forest and hard to reach. Photo: Alejandro González

Cacao in Uraba

Cacao trees were grown by indigenous communities in Uraba. Until the seventies, the region was little known, covered in forest and hard to reach.  Then the road between Medellin and Uraba was built and farmers came from elsewhere to explore the land and farm it; many arrived with cacao seeds for their own consumption.  They grew coffee to drink and to sell, but its quality was poor because of the humidity that clings to these mountains, and when the Colombian Cacao Federation and the Agrarian Fund promoted cacao cultivation and offered credit, the farmers decided to replace the coffee plants with more cacao.[1] They organised themselves as cooperatives and the farmers from San Jose created the Balsamar Cooperative in 1985, which had the support of the Patriotic Union (UP) party and was granted project funding by the Dutch aid agency.[2]

Economic blockades

But the communities had to overcome many obstacles to create the cacao economy we see today. In the 1990s the paramilitaries came to Uraba, sowing terror and murdering local leaders, members of the UP and the Cooperative, and the founder of San Jose village, Bartolome Cataño.[3]  This was a hard blow for the farming community in San Jose, and many people abandoned their lands.

Roviro López
Roviro López

In 1997, the farmers created the Peace Community of San Jose de Apartado; many families living under one roof, being threatened by illegal armed groups – guerrillas and paramilitaries –  and they couldn’t leave the hamlet, so they began creating work-groups to go out to the fields together to sow and reap their harvest. It was the only strategy they had to protect themselves, to avoid one of the armed groups disappearing them or killing them, which was happening at the time. They lived in the hope that they wouldn’t kill a big group of farmers going off to their lands.  The illegal armed groups would constantly set up economic blockades, waiting at strategic points on the paths and prohibiting the transportation of food or any other merchandise, threatening to murder anyone who came through there. Between 2001 and 2002 were some of the worst blockades, and for months they forbade food from being transported on the road from Apartado to San Jose : “nobody could go to the town to buy food because they wouldn’t let  you come through with it”, remembers Roviro Lopez, a member of the Peace Community. At that time, hundreds of people who took the risk of going to buy food were murdered. There was a lot of hunger.  The Community increasingly realised how important it was to get organised, grow their own food crops and become self-sustaining, and that is how they began creating community work-groups.


Interview with Father Javier Giraldo: “What the peace community lived through in those first months was terrible” (May 2017)

Twenty years of resistance (April 2017)


Collective land

When they returned to their farmlands in the mountains from 2006[4] onwards, the Peace Community bought land in different parts of San Jose district. These are collective farmlands that belong to the whole community, but to be better organised they are divided into plots and each work-group and family unit cultivates and looks after a plot.

cacao
Photo: Alejandro González

The cacao trees survived the war and being abandoned for years, and the farmers brought seeds to sow more trees.[5] They watched the cacao grow, and saw how the trees bore fruit, the pods, two years later. Looking after the plant is slow and painstaking. There are two harvests a year, the biggest is always between October and December, and another smaller one called “after-harvest”, between April and June. When the pod is ripe it is harvested, slit open, the seeds taken out, put in a bucket and taken home where they are put into boxes to ferment over the course of five to seven days. Afterwards they dry them in the sun for four to five days to get rid of the humidity from the seeds.  They sort the good seeds from the ones that are damaged or soft, pack them into bags and take them to the Community store to sell them.

Each working group sells its cacao production to the Peace Community. The price per kilo is decided by negotiating the value with the client. Today, the Community has 125 hectares devoted to growing cacao and produces seventy tonnes of it each year.

Jesús Emilio Tuberquia
Jesus Emilio Tuberquia: “Many human beings don’t know how cacao is grown, where it is produced, who produces it, the difficulties of producing it and putting it on the market. How it is grown, from harvesting the seeds, preparing the ground, looking after the plants, all the work after the harvest, from gathering it to fermenting it, drying it, bringing it down to the store; afterwards how it is transported to Europe or the United States. To do this we have a planning schedule, internal coordination, there are working groups, the monitoring group, support from the Internal Council for the whole process, all the work to obtain organic certification; it is a very long process.” Photo: Alejandro González

With part of the harvest they produce chocolate, which is a 100% cacao, sugar-free, chemical-free product called Chocopaz.  All the production is certified by Ceres, a Colombian certification standards agency that visits the cacao crops each year. They keep some of the chocolate bars themselves and the rest they sell to people who want organic chocolate. The community sells seventy tonnes a year to big clients: Lush in the United Kingdom is the main buyer of the Community’s cacao.  The profits they earn allow the Community to sustain itself economically, build infrastructure, support education and training, and buy what they do not produce themselves.

Nathalie Bienfait and Bianca Bauer


Footnotes:

[1] Gwen Burnyeat: Chocolate y Política: una contextualización etnográfica de la Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2015, p48-49
[2] Gwen Burnyeat: Chocolate y Política: una contextualización etnográfica de la Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó”, Universidad Nacional de Colombia, 2015, p50
[3] Verdad Abierta, En San José de Apartadó ronda el miedo, 4 May 2016
[4] The families returned to rural hamlets in several phases from 2006 (to La Esperanza and Mulatos in 2008)
[5]         Gildardo in Chocolate de Paz

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