A story about Beni, wild rivers and indigenous cacao growers as guardians of the Amazon
The Amazon is burning and many of us are lying awake at night asking ourselves what to do. The last time the world was so shaken in real-time by an environmental disaster was when the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl melted down. What we are witnessing in Amazon is far more consequential. But we can understand it, act on it and change it.
Here is our Original Beans contribution to preserving the Amazon. Of course, it will involve tasting Amazonian chocolate first. As we say:Taste the Rare and Preserve it.
You should know that the Amazon has been burning for years. When we started to source cacao for our Beni Wild 66% for the first time in 2009, we did so to counter the large fires on the Beni savannah lit by cattle farmers to trigger the growth of fresh grass for their herds. Only if local and indigenous people can live from their land in ways that are sustainable, are they emboldened to defend the forest against the fire-setting cattle owners and large agro-businesses.
Here is where conscious consumers come in. If they team up with local people in new, committed ways, such new value chains can change the world. That is what we have been preaching and practicing at Original Beans for over ten years now. With our rare chocolates and One Bar : One Tree programme we have connected hundred-thousands of forest preserving indigenous cacao growers and conscious customers the world over. More than 2.4 million trees have been planted and preserved as a result. And many more can be protected in the cradle of all cacao, the Amazon.
Our Bean Team is moving deep into the rainforests to source the world´s rarest cocoa beans. On their adventurous expeditions, they have been witnessing the threats to forests for years. Fires and floods are also affecting our cacao growers worldwide. Join us by boat and helicopter to the indigenous Movima cacao collectors we met on our recent journey to the Beni, Bolivian Amazon.
In my work for Original Beans’ Bean Team, I have travelled to many remote places over the years in search of the world’s rarest cacaos to taste and preserve. As I make my way on the long trip to the Amazon, I feel a deep sense of excitement. Here is where the Beniano cacao still grows wild and pure, preserved in the forest. But here, as in all other Original Beans origins, we also witness first-hand the hard clash between the fate of nature and its indigenous people, and the modern world’s relentless demands for leather, meat, soy, and other industrial goods. In these situations, we always offer our gentle, tasty way to a compromise between consumption and our planet’s regeneration: chocolate from these, the world’s rarest places.
My journey is destined to the indigenous Movima villages along the Mamoré and Apere river in the Amazon Basin. The Movima and their land are under pressure from the cattle and soya industries, whose aggressive deforestation system caused the recent wildfires that gained international attention.
Original Beans works to empower the local Movima communities in their cacao traditions while collecting wild Beniano cacao and planting diverse cacao-agroforestry systems. If we can show that the Movima indigenous territory is sustainably managed and preserved, it will strengthen the Movima’s customary land rights and prevent cattle keepers and the soya industry from grabbing and burning that land. As we speak, the Movima have rights to a piece of the Amazon the size of 100 thousand football fields! Can I play a role in safeguarding it for their and our future?
On my journey up the river, I have been trying to wrap my head around the reality we have faced: that there can be so much struggle in such a beautiful place. Hours and hours of untouched shores of forest, rising in endless shades of green, only interrupted by birds in wild colours crossing the river - yellow and blue macaws, majestic white herons, the one second glimpse of a kingfisher. But as we arrived at the first Movima villages, I was surprised to see that the small wooden village houses had all been flooded. The ground in the villages was hard like a flood-polished river bed. Once we had settled, a village elder told me that his family and the neighbours had lost their entire harvest during the recent rainy season. Now, they had to rely on fishing and hunting along the river to survive.
With little land and few opportunities, smallholder subsistence farmers and indigenous peoples are the most affected by and vulnerable to the weather changes brought about by a changing climate and deforestation locally. Empowering these farmers to make a better living from climate-smart agriculture is crucial for their survival. And ultimately ours, since the Movima are de facto owners of tens of thousands of hectares of forest. What I am here for is to help the Movima adapt to a changing climate, while supporting them to preserve their forests.
More than travelling in the cradle of cacao, the realization that we are all joined in the struggle with and against climate change, have made my trip along the remote Rio Apere such an unforgettable experience. I have come to know new people and understand that our fate is theirs: local indigenous leaders like Javier; young visionaries like Soledad and Manuel; the fisher and farmer families along the river; and the Chocolate Baures family that helps us source the world’s wildest cacao beans - David, Hernan and Marcela. It’s our natural world, together let’s preserve it in all its beauty.
“Hours and hours of untouched shores of forest, rising in endless shades of green, only interrupted by birds in wild colours crossing the river - yellow and blue macaws, majestic white herons, the one-second glimpse of a kingfisher. “
“Some trees tolerate flooding, while others don’t. Some trees prefer to grow in a little shade, while others prefer full sun. It will, therefore, be important to design and establish different types of agroforestry systems for different types of land. “
After an hour’s flight in a small prop plane and an entire day in the boat, guided by Movima friends from nearby, I finally get to taste the wild one. True, original Beniano cacao, foraged in the thicket of the forest. Small yellow fruits grow on dark stems rooted deep into the water, the dense forest canopy towering above. I wonder how it’s possible these cacao trees don’t wither, with their roots in the river water for months at a time.
The old Beniano trees grow tall and vivid like big bushes, with stems pointing in every direction. You can see them grow everywhere along the river, on islands and embankments. Locals call them chocolatales, the chocolate islands. Some of them are structures of earth built by a pre-Columbian civilisation that used to live on these savannah-forests 1000 BC. Some scientists claim that they grew cacao, others argue that the cacao here has been dispersed by monkeys and birds primarily. Certainly the monkeys, mainly capuchins and squirrel monkeys enjoy the cacao fruits. But also the great blue and yellow macaws flying overhead, like aerial seed couriers. Beneath them roam jaguars, ocelots, tapirs and giant anteaters, while piranhas, caimans, anacondas and pink river dolphins populate the waters.
The beans we source for our Beni Wild 66% grow on the territories of several indigenous groups along the rivers. To them, all harvesting wild cacao is a traditional and sustainable source of income in a place with few other opportunities. The savannah-forest is flooded every year during the rainy season, sometimes forcing the indigenous communities to become nomads. With little land above water, it’s hard for the Movima to grow crops. But the wild Beniano tolerates the waters and it’s a common practice to harvest it by boat.
The sun has been beating down on us in the boat for four shadeless hours, as we have moved up the river. Fed by thousands of streams running down from the mountains, the Mamoré river is beginning to show its strength which will carry it all the way into the Amazon. We glide up to a cluster of water lilies in the middle of the river. They are so gigantic, I feel like walking on them. Reminding myself of the piranhas, black caimans and 100-kilo catfish underneath, I stay inside the boat. As the boat engine falls silent, so does everything around. Bird calls now echo with extraordinary clarity. I hear the faraway cry of an eagle. Later, we hear water splashing. Behind us, a pink river dolphin breaks the water’s surface. A moment later, it reappears for a second viewing (who views whom?) on the other side. The dolphins, called bufeo by the locals, seem to be curious before they move on, in their magical way.
The Movima people along the Apere and Mamoré rivers live with and off the river fishing and hunting. Today, the cocoon of centuries-old forests is at risk of being lost to industrial mono-cultivators supported by the governments of Bolivia and Brazil.
Healthy cacao-forests and agroforestry systems function as buffer zones for the landscape and as corridors for wildlife that moves between preserved forest areas. These forests store carbon, enrich the soil, protect watersheds, generate rainfall and they can supply their caretakers with a great diversity of food and income sources. It is this sustainable land-use model Original Beans customers grow and support when they buy the Beni Wild 66% and join our One Bar: One Tree programme.
In the Beni, Original Beans customers additionally support the identification of the best wild Beniano trees that will be raised in village-based nurseries together with other tree species. They help indigenous Movima communities plant in diverse and well-designed agroforestry systems. They encourage crops like yucca, plantain and avocado to improve the local diet, while crops like cacao, achiote, allspice, grandiflorum and bananas provide a better income. Large trees such as mahogany, palo maria and massaranduba can be of great value to the families in 20-30 years. Some trees tolerate flooding, while others don’t. Some trees prefer to grow under a shade, while others prefer full sun. The more robust the diversity, the more robust the resilience against the upcoming storms, floods and extreme weather changes. Only with resilience and joined forces, will the Movima resist the fire frontier pushed by larger economic interests and ensure the preservation of their ancestral rainforests in the Amazon. Only together will we preserve our natural world in all its beauty.
The best way to preserve the rainforest for every one of us is with our choices of consumption. It has taken years to develop the Beni value chain that reaches into the heart of the Amazon. Now, the choice is yours. #TasteTheRareAndPreserveIt