From Bocas Town, it’s a short ride to the mainland of Almirante.
There, I joined fellow Habla Ya students interested in knowing more about chocolate on an organic chocolate farm tour. Yummy, right?
Sadly, while the process was fascinating (and delicious), the realities of life for cacao farmers are harsh and extremely unfair.
Finding out the Truth about Fair Trade Chocolate in Panama
starting the tour off with my favorite mode of transportation – boats boats boats!
From the boat jetty in Almirante, our guide was waiting to bring us to the Oreba Cooperative, a community of more than 30 Ngobe indigenous families united in working together to produce cacao. We were welcomed into the community, following a path up a hill lined with smiling children-filled homes and flowers.
Once at the top, we sat down to a delicious traditional meal and talked with our guides. Our younger guide could speak 7 different language fluently – demonstrating his expertise by switching through all of them. For those of us still working on our monolingualism (cough cough ME) – it was truly inspiring!
From the filling lunch, we picked up walking sticks and set off on the trail. Whoa, was it ever hot!!
Our guides pointed out different fruits and plants, and of course the cacao tree!
It was really interesting to see the different colors of cacao, and what it looks like in varying stages of maturity. I never knew!
The hike took us throughout the cacao field (really more like a forest), and was very hot but not too difficult. The guides stopped us every now and then to show various plants, and we could stop to take photos.
entering the cacao forest
time to stop for a quick breath and a hiking selfie
After hiking through the woods, we stopped at a hut on a hill where several women and children waited for us. This is where the cacao is roasted, after fermenting and drying out.
Still hand roasted in small batches similar to the way it has been done for centuries, the process was fascinating to watch and ridiculously rich to smell. The whole air (thick with humid heat already) was positively full of chocolatey scents.
We were able to try the beans, both when raw and after roasting. Such a difference from a hard and somewhat sour seed when raw, to the lush and rich cacao that creates cocoa paste.
trying the raw beans
After roasting, the beans are ground into paste by hand using a stone mortar and pestle. I tried my hand after taking some cues from the experts – it is hard work especially in the heat! I gained a whole new appreciation for all the work that goes into creating our chocolate bars!
After seeing the process and trying our hands (and trying the chocolate!) our guides shared with us the reality of cacao farming. Cacao prices have continually dropped (even for all-natural organic cacao like at Oreba) but the cost of living has increased. Now cacao farmers grow other crops as well to offset the financial burden of growing cacao – it is difficult to break even, let alone make enough to support a livelihood or a family.
our guide, describing the harsh conditions of cacao farming
Even more devastating, a vicious fungus has begun to ravage the pods, killing the cacao before it is ever collected. Now, farmers must be ever vigilant and visit their farms constantly, picking and destroying any infected pod before it can spread to others. Farmers cannot rest even for one day, lest they miss an infected pod that could destroy their whole field.
Aside from overrunning their lives, because of the fungus fewer pods than ever can be collected – especially on an all-natural farm that doesn’t use pesticides – which means even lower production.
Our guides also explained the the Fair Trade chocolate that so many of us pride ourselves on buying isn’t always so fair for the farmers. While the program creates fair prices for the middle men, very rarely do the actual cacao farmers see the benefit of so-called “fair trade” chocolate. At Oreba, their precious, hand-picked, organic, sustainable cacao is sold for less than $1 a kilo, which is then resold by the middle man at many times the price.
So what can you do? Buy your chocolate directly from farmers and small producers – that way you know your money is going to the people who need it (and deserve it) the most.
Oreba is a collective of more than 30 very small family-owned farms, with each farmer owning between 1 and 4 hectares of land. The cooperative works to educate the community, and also other cacao farmers by encouraging good practices and organic farming. The cacao tour proceeds are used to benefit the community, by supporting the school fund, future projects, and the livelihoods of the farmers.
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The organic chocolate tour costs $35 for students of Habla Ya with proceeds benefitting the Oreba Cooperative and including lunch (vegetarian/vegan available – request in advance). This price does not include the cost of the boat to Almirante ($6).
While the Oreba chocolate tour is not that strenuous, it does include a hike through the forest and can be VERY hot.
Be sure to wear proper closed-toed shoes (like sneakers or hiking shoes or my fave Vibrams), wear bug spray or a bug band (apply it BEFORE entering the farm unless it is an organic bug spray, as Oreba is an organic farm), and bring a bottle of water.