Cocoa Production in Venezuela

June 22, 2010

Professor Juan Gaviria calls out to the group heading toward the narrow path, “You’re walking into change.”

Professor Juan Gaviria calls out to the group heading toward the narrow path, “You’re walking into change.” Indeed, the sign overhead reads “Cambios,” which in Spanish means change, and what comes to life on this narrow, overgrown path is quite literally a revolutionary change in cocoa production.

The Cambios Project, a partnership with Merida Botanical Gardens and Valrhona, is an effort to preserve the biodiversity of the forests of the Andes Cordillera region by actively supporting a more socially and economically sustainable method of cacao farming. Under the direction of botanical garden scientists, Valrhona’s El Pedregal plantation is now the pilot plantation for sustainable cacao farming and a satellite garden for the university, which oversees the botanical garden’s program.

Aside from the altruistic goals of the three-year-old project, Valrhona is working toward the preservation of the Porcelana cocoa variety, which comes from the rare Criollo cacao tree and is only grown in Venezuela. Porcelana is an extremely rare type of cacao bean, familiar to experts the world over for its exceptional aromatic qualities, but abandoned by cultivators because of low productivity. Only one in a thousand flowers survives and develops into a pod containing pure pearly-white beans producing chocolate without the slightest hint of bitterness. Valrhona isolated and propagated a clonal selection of Porcelana at its Pedregal plantation near El Vigia at the foot of the great Andes Cordillera.

Only about five percent of cocoa production is from the Criollo family. The cacao bean in more than 80% of chocolate comes from the beans of the Forastero group. Forastero trees are significantly hardier than Criollo trees, resulting in cheaper cacao beans. Trinitario, a hybrid of Criollo and Forastero, is used in about 10% of chocolate.

The trees were once wild and prolific in the area south of Lake Maracaibo, which is rich in rainforests and biodiversity. Domestication of the cacao tree, and intensive cattle farming and agriculture threaten the forests. Many locals had moved away from cacao farming because of the investment of time it takes to produce an income – it takes five years before the first bud is produced on a newly planted cacao tree, and seven to 10 years before a tree begins to break even. Add that to the fact that more than 20% of production is lost annually to disease, and cacao farming is a difficult way to make a living.

The Cambios Project’s premise is that once the natural habitat of the region is restored through the reintroduction of native plants, other animal and insect species will follow, allowing for a natural remedy to the plight of Porcelana. By reintroducing threatened floral species on the plantation, the project will eventually produce 12,000 plants and become a sustainable, state-of-the-art cacao cultivation pilot plantation in 2011.

“The cacao plantation comes from the forest,” Gaviria says. “It needs the forest. It is a struggle. It is a fight.”

The new area at the edge of the plantation is planted with cacao trees and indigenous plants. Although the project is only months old, the plants are growing as if they have thrived there forever. Gaviria looks around with excitement as if he’s watching his own children sprouting legs and running wild.

“It’s a little child,” he says of the restored forest. “It works like a real ecosystem.”

Gaviria pauses, listening as Conoto negros flap their wings, calling out to each other overhead; watching as spiders weave incredible webs from the canopy above; and staring into the canopy at what is undoubtedly a myriad of insects invisible to the naked eye swarming above. The marked difference between the sounds and growth in this region of the plantation draws excitement from everyone on the walk (especially when a hairy tarantula is spotted meandering on the path). It appears Cambios is drawing a large collection of fans of all species.

“We have here a gem,” he says. “We have the origin of Porcelana, the best cocoa in the world.”

Aside from the scientists and the insect population, Cambios allows for inclusion of the local schools, students, residents and farmers. Educational projects with local schools are under way on conservation and sustainable farming. The satellite garden itself, on the edge of Pedregal plantation, will open to visitors in 2011 so they can experience biodiverse cacao farming. A byproduct of the project has been the successful growth of a bounty of in-demand exotic flowers, showing promise of another income-producing venture for local farmers.

“The local people are the ones who will destroy or preserve the habitat,” Gaviria says. “We have to teach the children what they have so they understand what it is they can lose and what it is they want to preserve. We are planting the seed in the children.”

Valrhona is working toward standardizing both cultivation and fermentation processes whenever possible in its growing regions to ensure high-quality bean production. Their hope is that the Cambios Project will spread to other regions in Venezuela as well as other cocoa-producing regions of the world.

SupermarketGuru columnist Michelle Moran recently returned from Venezuela. She was among a select group of journalists from around the world introduced to Valrhona’s single-origin estate production and biodiversity project, traveling through the cloud forests and diverse habitats of the Chama River Valley region in the foothills of the Andes.