Cocoa honey is probably the sweetest and most intensely flavored fruit juice I have ever tasted. It is extracted from the white flesh around the fresh cocoa beans, which are wrapped in a banana leaf until all of the juice has dripped out. This is only one of the tropical delicacies I had the privilege to try during a recent trip to the state of Bahia in Brazil’s Northeast. There was also acai, jackfruit, cupuaçú, cajá (the latter two tropical fruit usually consumed as juice), licuri (a palm nut used to produce oil but also excellent toasted and salted), bananas - and of course: chocolate.
All the above grow in Brazil’s rainforests along the Atlantic coast, much of which was decimated to make place for sugar plantations in the 18th and 19th centuries. That some of the rainforest remains in the southern part of Bahia is thanks to cocoa. The cocoa plant grows well under the shade of other tropical trees and hence favors maintaining the original forest cover. During the cocoa boom in the 1970s and early 80s, almost two thirds of Bahia’s total GDP came from the cocoa plantations. Its owners were multi-millionaires living all around the world, while the population remained dead poor, often illiterate and held in serf-like conditions. In the 1990s, a pest changed all that, wiping out 90 percent of the cocoa plantations and devastating the local economy. Many plantations were converted over to pastures, which require much less labor, further aggravating the local economic slump.
But the crisis put in train a gradual change in the rural economy, as some of the laborers who lost their jobs on the plantations banded together, occupied unproductive land and started to form rural cooperatives. One such cooperative is Terra Vista, founded 28 years ago and today housing some 55 families. The cooperative has restored around 60 hectares of rainforest, planting plague resistant cocoa trees interspersed with other tropical fruit trees using the traditional “Cabruca” mixed plantation system. The cocoa trees thrive in this environment, benefiting from nutrients emitted by the other plants, the shade provided by the fruit trees, and by being more distant from one another reducing the susceptibility to disease. The Terra Vista farmers achieve yields of up to 60 sacks (at 90kg per sack) per hectare, for which they obtain around Rs. 150 per sack. A family can easily farm up to 4 hectares of Cabruca, bringing in a gross income of Rs. 36,000 per year. But this is not their only income – the acai, cupuaçú, cajá and banana harvest each bring in another 10,000 Rs. per hectare in a good year. The total income from Cabruca farming can thus reach as much as Rs. 50-60,000 per year per hectare, enough to lift a cooperative farming family into the Brazilian upper middle class, even when all costs are discounted. And the good news does not stop here: the restoration of the rainforest has led to a dramatic recovery of the local ecosystem, restoring the water cycle and thus ensuring long-term sustainability.
Terra Vista is another example of the potential of sustainable forestry management to provide excellent income opportunities to the local population whilst preserving or in this case even restoring the environment about which I already blogged after my visit to Acre. But what makes the Bahia experience special is how farmer cooperatives are increasingly linked to private sector customers. This is the essence of the Bahia Produtiva project which initiated a new phase in the work with rural cooperatives, building on the positive experiences in more advanced states such as Santa Catarina and Sao Paulo. One private customer is chocolate maker Amma, specializing in high quality, organic chocolates, which it sells not only all over Brazil but in 17 countries around the world. Amma is not the only investor that is rediscovering the potential of cocoa from Bahia. These investors are assisted by the state-owned cocoa laboratory and nursery – the Biofabrica, where higher yielding and more pest resistant cocoa varieties are being developed and then distributed at cost to farmer cooperatives. A local value chain has thus developed, but this time, it is benefiting thousands of cooperative farmers rather than a few plantation owners and the cocoa is increasingly locally processed into chocolate rather than exported as raw material.
The cocoa cycle lends itself particularly well to value creation in a sustainable forest systems approach. This is getting international attention, reflected in the launch in 2018 of the CocoaAction Brazil initiative during a meeting bringing together Brazilian government authorities, the World Cocoa Foundation, several international companies (including Barry Callebout, Dengo, Cargill, Mars, Mondelez, Nestlé and Olam) and the World Bank Group.
But many other products of farmer cooperatives, including honey, licuri oil, nuts and acai are increasingly marketed with success. And this applies not just to farm output. The second leg of my visit took me to the Bahia de Todos os Santos, the large bay on whose south-eastern tip lies the city of Salvador. There with the support of the Bahia Produtiva project, local fishermen are investing in storage and logistics infrastructure to be able to supply the markets of Salvador. Fishing in the bay is artisanal by necessity – there is not enough fish to justify the use of larger vessels and much of the shellfish is collected by hand during low tide. But the fishermen face long transport routes into the city and the lack of cold storage facilities means that so far they are forced to sell their produce at cut-down prices to middlemen, who easily capture two thirds or more of the value. Fishing is intermittent and attention to quality is low, given low prices. Indeed, Salvador imports a significant share of its seafood consumption from other Brazilian states. The project aims to overcome this difficulty thus creating sustainable livelihoods for local fishing communities and improving the supply of high quality, local seafood to Salvador residents.
Among the most enthusiastic supporters of this emerging local economy are innovative chefs in Salvador. The Bahia capital has a discerning foodie community and local chefs are regaling their palates with innovative creations based on regional ingredients, following in the footsteps of Alex Atala, the world famous Sao Paulo chef. The Bahia Produtiva project has by now launched 12 tenders benefiting some 350 cooperatives which have presented credible business plans. Not all of these will work out. I blogged about some of the challenges after my first visit to the project three years ago. But the positive developments since then are remarkable and encouraging. It is clearly possible to integrate a substantial number of rural producers into value chains based on private investment and initiative. If sustained this may gradually wean the rural population even in disadvantaged regions like Brazil’s Northeast off their dependence on state support.
One thing has not changed in my evaluation of the productive alliance concept three years after my first visit: the role of local leadership. The Terra Vista community is led by Joelson, a man in his 50s, with a life dedicated to community activism. Joelson has a vision for his community. He knows that to escape poverty for good his cooperative members will need to invest in education. He has thus championed the establishment of a cocoa school in the community, where youth from around the area receive basic technical instruction in agro-processing systems. In the adjacent model chocolate factory, we met three teenagers producing excellent artisanal dark chocolate bars. Joelson’s vision is slowly taking hold. Among the fishers, the leader is Mario, an energetic 75 year old who organizes the fish processing and storage facility for the community of fishing cooperatives. But their project would not have become a reality without the technical support of a group of volunteers from Humana, an international NGO, who has helped introduce quality management and worked with the community to establish and enforce clear rules for sustainable fishing.
This was my last project visit in Brazil. A very sweet good-bye indeed, and a hopeful one too. For this and so much more many, many thanks.