I was recently at L.A. Burdick’s chocolate shop and I came across cocoa powder (to make hot chocolate) and chocolate bars. Now, encountering chocolate (in its infinite forms) in a chocolate shop is not the surprising part here. The surprise was reading a beautiful but simple font spelling out “Bolivia” on the packaging of a chocolate bar. These bars are “single source,” meaning the cacao is derived from a single cacao farm, or, even more broadly, a single country (Coles 2015). Bolivia struck me as a country having very loose ties to chocolate, if any at all. I have associated Bolivia with coca leaves and quinoa for so long, that it was hard for me to even conceive of an area in Bolivia where cacao might be harvested-I have visited a few regions of Bolivia and none seemed to have the “appropriate” conditions for cacao farming. As we have discovered in class, cacao farming is restricted to certain regions of the world because the tree only takes root when its preferences have been met-most of these having to do with climate, shade, moisture, etc. Coe (2013) describes the ideal environment for the cacao plant as “damp, shaded understory” (p. 21).
In doing research for this blog post, I discovered that, in fact, Bolivia is producing cacao and doing it very well at that. Bolivia is recognized as the “world’s largest producer of organic cacao” (see: “Bolivia is the largest producer of organic cocoa”). The cacao industry of Bolivia is estimated to generate $2 million in exports and has 12,000 hectares of wild cacao farms (see: “Bolivia is the largest producer of organic cocoa). The majority of the cacao is coming from La Paz and Beni. I was not sure what was meant by the descriptor “wild,” but a blogger from Chocablog describes the Bolivian cacao beans as small and “almost half the size of their cultivated brothers.” They thrive in the ancient rainforest cocoa islands of Beni (a department or small state of Bolivia), off the river’s edge and are prized for the “rich, honeyed fruit tones and un-tampered flavor” (see: “In search of wild Bolivian cacao”). This description reminded me of Coe’s (2013) explanation of the Spaniard’s (Madrilenos) love for the chocolate coming from the Mojos region of Bolivia. It was “valued for its fragrance and lack of bitterness” (p. 207). I can attest to the fruity notes in the chocolate bar I bought at L.A. Burdicks. The 68% cacao content gives the consumer the opportunity to experience a beautiful range of the cacao flavor.
The Rainforest Exquisite Products S.A. or REPSA was established to try to increase the quality of the harvest in Bolivia and so far, the cacao beans are coveted by luxury chocolate makers around the world, including Switzerland. However, the harvesting of cacao has not come without controversy. Just like the Jesuits used the indigenous communities of Bolivia and other parts of South America to sustain their cacao-producing farms, native peoples are also the main backbone of today’s cacao economy in Bolivia. I found a short video illustrating the effects of disinvestment in communities that rely on this industry.
While South America, specifically the northwest Amazon region, is known to be the genetic center of cacao’s diversity, its cultural center in Mesoamerica is known more widely. It was the Aztecs after all who integrated cacao into their daily lives. Cacao has now come full circle with its “return” to the homeland. Presilla (2009) points to scientific research that found “two areas that gave rise to different genotypes:” the Amazon River basin and Peru (p. 8). It is nice to see that Bolivia has also come back into the equation of cacao, even if it means spending $10 on a bar of chocolate.
Coe, S.D. & Coe, M.D. (2013). The true history of chocolate. China: Everbest Printing Co, Ltd.
Presilla, M.E. (2009). The new taste of chocolate: A cultural and natural history of cacao with recipes. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
In search of wild Bolivian cacao. Chocablog. Retrieved from: http://www.chocablog.com/features/wild-bolivian-cacao/. Images also taken from the chocoablog website.