Harvest day. Heavy rainfall in neighbouring Ecuador means the river is too high to cross by the vehicle ferry, so 4×4′s abandoned and we pile into a small riverboat to battle a ferocious current, the locals are totally unphased by this, it’s a regular occurrence. Not long after we are across, news of the river calming means a trip back to get the 4×4′s. A fight nearly breaks out in an argument over who goes first in a long queue of vehicles. We need the 4×4′s today for the long trip up high to Don Rigalo’s farm.
Don Rigalo’s daughter is first to greet us, she runs up to give me and Dan’s legs a hug, she must be about 8 but her growth has been stunted by down syndrome, she is confident, loveable and talkative. We greet the Don, his wife and son Dennis. Brian has brought a team of his workers to help with the harvest so pleasant exchanges are made and work begins. Turns out the latest grandson was named after Brian!
Don Rigalo has an area on his farm exclusive to cacao, there are no companion / canopy plants because the trees are old enough to be big enough to provide their own shade. Bright yellow, red and green pods jut out of the trunks all over the place. We are shown how to harvest the high pods using a long pole with a very sharp hooked knife at the end. It’s not easy but enjoyable enough work, I should think much preferable to other labour on the farm. The Don and the workers knock the pods off the trees and the woman and kids collect them into the carrying sacks. A great pile of ripe pods begins to take shape in one spot where we gather to learn how to break them open. Traditionally a machete is used to cut around the pod before opening and tipping the white fleshy beans out. Brian insists on farmers breaking the pods against a rock, a sharp stick or another pod. This prevents any damage to the precious beans inside from the machete. He is very particular about which beans go into his chocolate, anything below standard goes into a separate pile.
Brian’s operation is unique in collecting the fresh beans from the farms, he needs to do this so he can process them at his plant and give them the extremely high level of care they need to make fine chocolate. Usually farmers do a very poor quality fermentation, then dry the beans on a tarpaulin placed on a concrete floor somewhere around the farm. This means terrible flavours from absorbing the surrounding aromas. It is also very unhygienic with hens, dogs, cats and other farm animals wandering as they like about the farm. These beans will be sold at low cost to the mainstream market, ending up in a Cadbury’s / Hershey’s / Mars type product. The company will roast out any bacteria and mask over the poor flavours with other ingredients. If a Cadbury’s customer saw the hygiene standards on these farms they may be shocked, it’s a long way from the glossy wrappers. The rotting pods and poor beans Brian won’t accept will be sold to a middleman and make their way to the mass market. Brian offers a service to his farmers of taking those discard beans to the middleman for the farmers to save them the work. Don Rigalo doesn’t have a vehicle, and lives miles up a rocky track in the mountains. On the way up we passed several farmers moving goods by donkey. There are lots of donkeys here.
Don Rigalo’s daughter wants me to photograph her, she is holding a pod, the pod is a genetic oddity with a strange shape. I take the photo and don’t think anything much of it until a couple of moments later. I don’t think she realised either, I don’t know.
Brian collects cacao from over 50 farmers. He pays significantly more than the going rate and offers help when he can to improve their quality of life. This could be paying for medical expenses, helping to buy a new generator, or helping to organise, inform and empower the local cacao association. Collection from the farm, higher prices and removal of the need to process the cacao seem to be Brian’s biggest attraction for the farmers. Brian however is evidently not rich, he stays in the same type of accommodation as everyone else here and shares his room with the processing plant manager when on site. They both share their room with a couple of tons of cacao.
I ask Brian about the kids who are helping their parents with the harvest. They are on school holidays, are happy, relaxed and under no great pressure. It is clear to me that they are not being exploited. They will help out on the farm in a similar way that families in developed countries expect of their children, only in Peru the families have much, much less income. South American culture is very different from known exploitation in parts of Africa. Farmers here could never afford the certification without help to be fair-trade or organic, they can’t afford fertilisers or pesticides, so almost everything is by default organic. There is a growing trend amongst chocolate makers and cacao growers that fair-trade is a false economy and is being manipulated to the benefit of anyone but the farmers. Personally I believe fair trade has its place, in the Ivory Coast, Africa particularly, and that we owe a great deal to what fair-trade has achieved. It should however be a base line and we can do much better for the farmers and the consumers with uncertified direct trade. A customer who wants to consume ethical chocolate owes it to the farmers to look beyond the first step of fair trade and into a more informed consumerism. That requires transparency from the producers which is what we hope to achieve.
The beautiful white aromatic cacao is emptied into clear buckets. Once the three 20l buckets are full and all the pods opened, a set of scales is produced. The buckets are weighed, the Don looks on attentively. An exchange of money is made. The Don looks pleased.
We share corn cooked up by the Don’s wife and I talk with Dennis about school, he is bright and I wish I could speak better Spanish to find out more from him. I give him my last bar of chocolate, and he goes to hide it somewhere cool.
We say our farewells and start the bumpy trip back down to the processing plant. Spectacular views over the Andes.
At the plant the cacao is first tipped into a box that lets the juice run out. We drink the juice which is totally delicious, flavours of peaches and elderflower with the consistency of nectar. A discussion follows about the lack of cacao flesh products on the market, this stuff is fantastic.
Beans are tipped out into a massive tray and we go through to pull out any which have germinated or have damage. Again Brian is impressively obsessive about the quality. They are thoroughly mixed before being poured into fermentation boxes. We talk a lot about processing the beans, different styles and cultural preferences for chocolate.
Back to the river to find a huge truck has just been brought over on the tiny ferry. We wait our turn then head back to base town in the evening light, once again thoughtful from the events of the day. Also exhausted from the work, delirious from heat and with a very unsettled inner workings from the food.
My first Pisco Sour (national drink). very strong. Probably killed off some of that unwelcome bacteria…