Over the past two centuries chocolate has become an integral part of western civilization’s identity; so common in our eating habits that few know it as a product that’s origin, in the cocoa tree, is alien to our soils. Since the first voyages of Columbus and the subsequent arrival of the Conquistadores, cocoa has become ever more intertwined with European customs. From its cradle in South America, it has expanded as a major cash crop throughout the world and now, with the advent of the 21st century, it faces important hurdles that must be overcome so that it can fill its potential as a source of income, pleasure and pride. The case of Ecuador’s Nacional cocoa variety is emblematic of these challenges.
A Nacional cocoa pod.
Ecuador has been a constant source of cocoa since the latter part of the 16th century, when large expanses of wild ‘Forastero’ cocoa on the Guayaquil coast were discovered and geared for mass production by the Conquistadores. Ecuadorian plantations were and are highly regarded for the fine or flavour cocoa that they produce, often under the name of Nacional. Flavour cocoa trees are characterized by a low productive yield, whilst having very particular flavours, and today represent a niche in the heavily oversaturated cocoa market (only 5% of cocoa produced is flavoured). In the second part of the 19th century, and the first two decades of the 20th century, cocoa exports continued to be the mainstay of the Ecuadorian economy, outliving the political and market structures of colonization, and carrying Ecuador, as an independent nation, into the globalized market.
The Ecuadorian love story with cocoa took an ugly turn between 1920 and 1935, when an epidemic of diseases, namely Crinipellis perniciosa (witches’ broom disease) and moniliophtora roreri (frosty pod rot), took root. This was also due to the intensive cultivation of cocoa as a monoculture, which led to a weakening of its natural defences from invasive fungi. The outcome was a cutting of production to 25% of its original level (from 40 000 tons to around 10 000 tons per annum), and a resulting economic crisis, as cocoa represented around 60% of all exports at the time. In fact, Ecuador’s economic development has largely hinged on waves of export led booms. The first was the cocoa industry led boom, that’s upswing lasted from about 1860 to 1920. After a period of faltering cocoa exports, and general economic discontent, Ecuador entered the ‘banana period’ between 1948 and 1982, when rising international demand for bananas saw them become the country’s primary export. Finally, the exploitation of oil resources became the chief source of economic growth between 1972 and 1982. In this last period, which was characterised by increased affluence, the Ecuadorian government undertook massive investment in the social sector, increasing subsidies and incentives for domestic businesses. However, dependence on international prices for oil meant that, with the end of the oil boom in the early 80s, Ecuador could no longer support its expansive domestic policy and fell into a massive debt spiral. To compensate for this, policy-makers abandoned efforts to promote industry oriented toward the internal market, and instead encouraged production of non-traditional exports so as to increment the amount of foreign capital with which to stabilize the budget, and pay off mounting debts. Today, this has left Ecuador in a condition of economic and cultural plight, whereby much work is needed to restore both economic prosperity and a sense of national identity in connection to what is being produced. Cocoa represents a viable route through which this can be achieved. Not only is it a part of Ecuador’s national heritage, but if cultivated according to the rules of fair trade, it can give the Ecuadorian producer a much needed economic boost, whilst at the same time providing foreign capital with which the national debt can be paid off.
The main inhibiting factor to this solution is the fear of epidemics: a 2004-2010 study by the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC), the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) and Bioversity International, has shown that it is the first concern of 86% of Ecuadorian cocoa producers. There are two potential methods with which to prevent further cocoa epidemics, and therefore revitalize production. Producers can either go back to using ‘heirloom’ seeds (handed down by generations) such as the Nacional variety, or resort to ‘hybrid’ seeds, such as the CCN 51. Implicit in the heirloom method is the adoption of cocoa ‘agroforestry’, in which some of the large trees of the virgin rainforest are left standing. This enables a wide range of animal and plant species to be conserved, which in turn helps cocoa trees strengthen their natural defences and contributes toward preserving Ecuador’s greatest national heritage: its incredible environment and biodiversity. Furthermore, the very conservation of Nacional cocoa is a measure toward promoting biodiversity, as it is a variety that is at risk of being lost to the ever-popular hybrid strains, something that would be detrimental both to Ecuadorian heritage and chocolate lovers across the globe – as Nacional is extremely particular in the flavours that it contains. In contrast, hybrid seeds are cultivated in large monoculture plantations, which require the use of pesticides and fertilizers to make them disease resistant and to maximize yields. Hybrids have been used with great popularity since the cocoa epidemics of the 1920s, but have done little to help the small Ecuadorian producer, instead encouraging the formation of large ‘haciendas’ in which economic gains remain concentrated in the hands of a few large landowners. The cocoa produced by hybrid varieties is bulk rather than flavour cocoa – it is a product of lower quality that’s cultivation results in a loss of biodiversity both in the cocoa family and the surrounding environment. In the current context of mass production of cocoa across Latin America, but especially in African nations, it is important that Ecuador maintain its foothold in the niche market of flavour cocoa, represented by the Nacional variety, as bulk cocoa is a lot more subject to the whims and fluctuations of the international market.
Ecuador needs to revive its production of fine flavour cocoa not only so as to ensure a source of foreign capital, but also to encourage a project that carries a national heritage. Symbolic of the efforts to safeguard the Nacional variety is the Ecuadorian government’s work, through its acting agent INIAP (Institute Nacional Autónomo de Investigaciones Agropecuarias), to prohibit the cross breeding of CCN 51 with indigenous varieties, so as to stem the ever increasing genetic erosion of Nacional cocoa. In parallel, large quantities of foreign investment have been placed in projects that not only seek to promote the use of Nacional seeds in conditions of agroforestry, but also tackle the social aspects involved. For example, the project ‘Cacao Y Huertas’ brings together the associations of small farmers APOV, MINAGUA and CADO, to work towards promoting the production of Nacional cocoa with agroforestry methods whilst also ensuring that the producers get their fair share. In addition, ‘Cacao Y Huertas’ employs Ecuadorian emigrants to sell the final product, chocolate, in importing countries. This way, not only is something being done in Ecuador, for Ecuador’s people, their national identity and the nature that surrounds them, but also for all those who love chocolate, its particularities and the Earth from which it grows.