Earlier in the summer, I spent a few days in Colombia en route to Peru. As you may be aware, at Fifth Dimension Chocolates we love using chocolate from Colombia – apart from the quality of the fine flavour cacao (cacao fino de aroma) grown in that region, we feel comfortable with the way our supplier, Casa Luker, operates in Colombia, having seen with our own eyes every step in cacao research and training, sourcing and purchasing cacao from the farmers and chocolate production back a few years ago.
This time, one of the projects I was most interested in was their Necocli project. I heard and read about the Necocli project at the end of 2015, and I wanted to find out more about this project. Before the visit, all I knew was that Casa Luker was helping the children and there was a new farm in the region.
Necocli is in the Antioquia department in the north-Eastern part of Colombia, right by the Carribean Sea. It’s a 1-hour plane ride from Bogota to Monteria, and then a 2-hour car journey to Necocli. This area has seen its fair share of conflicts with drug gangs, smuggling and guerrilla fighting in the past few decades, and the work opportunities have been scarce. The area is poor and the government was not able to make a huge effort in improving the lives in the area due to other more pressing priorities.
When I was told that it’s a new cocoa plantation, I was somewhat concerned. You get to hear in the media about companies chopping down rainforests to make way of cocoa plantations in Africa, and then planting monocrop of just cacao trees (which has a devastating effect on the environment and wildlife). However, my fear was totally unfounded once I have toured round the plantation and spoke to the people there. In fact, I don’t like calling it a plantation as the whole area feels far more natural, and so I’ll call it a "cocoa forest" in the rest of this article.
The 550-hectare land used to be a cattle ranch, which employed only 5 people – so there’s very little opportunity for employment for most people in the area. A few years ago, the landowner decided to turn it into something else and approached Casa Luker for technical support to turn the land into a cocoa forest.
Rather than just rows and rows of cocoa trees and nothing else, the agroforestry system consists of plantain trees, cocoa trees and melina trees - the same model applied to many small farms in Colombia successfully. The plantain trees are fast-growing and start to provide plantains after 9 months from planting – this provides the immediate short-term income. They also provide the shade for the cocoa trees. The cocoa trees only start to produce cacao pods after 3-5 years, and will produce cocoa for 20 years at least, so this means that the future is secured for at least 20 years. The melina trees provide the wood that can be sold in the long term. This system of three different trees also has the benefit of soil conservation (since it’s not just a monocrop taking out the same nutrients in the soil), and an unforeseen benefit of bringing more wildlife into the area – apparently there are now more different birds seen in the area.
The 550 hectares of land have been divided into 5 sections, with multiple plots per section. Several different cacao varieties are grown in each section – all the varieties are of cacao fino de aroma (fine flavour cacao). This means that there’s no chance the CCN-51 (a non-fine-flavour cacao but with a high production yield) can be grown or pollinated in this cocoa forest – a problem often seen in Ecuador and Peru, where CCN-51 is common.
In the last few years, 26 hectares of agricultural land had to give way to a reservoir in the forest. This is because the rainfall has become irregular in the area, with heavier rainfall at times accompanied by longer dry spells. Whether this is due to the El Nino effect or climate change, no one knows. One thing is sure though – without the reservoir, many cocoa trees would not survive because of the lack of water.
Traditionally in the Necocli area, people only had access to low-paid temporary jobs, with no job security, or they ended up working for violent armed groups or illegal trades.
The cocoa forest creates at least 150 new jobs in the area. This is important for the community as many more people in Necocli now have access to long-term employment. Each worker has a 3-month probation period at the start, in order to assess their abilities to see what roles would be most suitable for them. Once this period is over, the worker has a permanent contract, and is paid above the minimum wage – the pay is also based on how productive the worker is also. Each employee also receives healthcare benefits. The working hours are from 6am-3pm Mondays to Fridays, and then 6am to noon on Saturdays.
This provides the workers with a steady income, which means that they have a better quality of life and can concentrate on earning a living and providing the security and stability for their children also. The number of employees is growing – over 300 people will be employed when the cacao trees start to produce pods for harvest at the end of 2017.
There are 2 aspects that I am really looking forward to, after visiting the cocoa forest. Firstly, I can’t wait to try the cacao from Necocli and see if the flavour would fit in with what we do at Fifth Dimension Chocolates. Secondly, I would love to see how a similar approach can be applied to another area in Colombia to improve the livelihood of the residents.