For its historical role in the growth and agrarian features of the country and its print on the national culture, the production of cacao constitutes without a doubt a relevant subject with regards to the Ecuadorian economy and society. As central to the nation as the cultivation of cacao can be, it seems however that this has not been reflected on the life conditions of its main producers.
The origin – 3300BC
As explained by Professor Martin, Carla D. from Harvard University, the cacao tree (Theobroma cacao L.), is native from the Amazonian basin on the foothills of the northern Andes, a region that spreads on what are now Ecuador and Colombia. A ceramic pottery dating 3300BC and found in Ecuador’s southern Amazonian region of Zamora Chinchipe, contained microscopic remnants of cocoa, suggesting that cocoa beans were being harvested and consumed there more than 5,000 years ago.
The beginning of the colonial period (1530- 1750)
Cacao production became a business under the colonisation of the territory by the Spaniards. «Around 1600, the collection and exploitation of the cacao beans constituted one of the most important activities of the old province of Guayaquil. Almost 9 boats were leaving annually the port transporting cacao» (Chiriboga, 2013: 27).
The agrarian structure then developed trough the system of Encomiendas, large land concessions (Haciendas) received by the colons with a right of serfdom over the native population. Theoretically they were in charge of educating and baptizing the Indians under their guardianship, in practice they were reducing them to slavery through the necessary tribute (gold, chicken, maize, cacao and other foodstuffs) as well as through services of personal nature. Thousands of Indians died. In 1600 there were approximately 500 Encomiendas in Ecuador.
Meanwhile, the trade of slaves had started in the middle of the XV century in Spain. Slaves were brought by the colons mainly as workforce for the agricultural labour. In fact, native populations (often coming from the highlands) were not considered as performant for such hard labour under the hot and humid climatic conditions of the coastal area where most of the cocoa cultivation was taken place. Mortality rate amongst slaves was high and average life expectancy extraordinarily low. Approximately 30% of the slaves died in the process of adaptation to their new life (environment, diseases) therefore the system of control and repression was extremely hard as it had to face rebellions and escapes from the slaves.
The First Cacao Boom (1779-1842)
Following the Bourbon reforms, the departure of the Jesuits and the authorisation in 1789 by the king Charles IV to cultivate and export cacao from the region, the food crops and tobacco plantations turned into cacao plantations (in high demand in Europe). Cacao production then spread all over the country and the first large cacao Haciendas were born. Exports went from 5,600 metric tons (MT) to 15,700 MT in 1843. Spain was the first market, then England and Germany.
The cacao crop did not require year-round attention and it was often just as profitable for an owner to let his slaves buy themselves and then hire them to work for wages during the high-season. It is estimated that between 1780 and 1820 several hundred slaves took advantage of this new reality.
More details on the slavery and manumission in Ecuador are available in the following article:
This first boom, led by the exports to foreign markets, was also achieved through the movement of the workforce from the highlands. Indeed, an important migration of the native people from the highlands to the coastal area took place that was entirely related to the cacao production. Around 1830 there were many more day laborers than small landlords/producers on their own piece of land.
The second cacao boom (1870-1925)
During the Second Cacao Boon the production increased consistently up to 100,000 MT annually and Ecuador became the first world producer supplying 15 to 25% of the international demand.
Soon appeared a reduced group of 20 families that controlled more than 70% of the producing area. These Hacendos were known as the « Gran Cacao » and accumulated land that were initially acquired by indigenous people during the colonial period. These appropriations – often dishonest –concentrated power and created an even bigger contrat between this new oligarchy and the workforce made of farmers brought from the highlands and former slaves (abolition of slavery was in 1861).
Source: Anecacao website (Asociación Nacional de Exportadores de Cacao – Ecuador)
Indeed, the « Gran Cacao » enjoyed the increased world demand, high prices but above all, the cheap domestic workforce that were scarcely remunerated and submitted to high debts.
« Indians and negros of Ecuador do the work of cacao and other plantations. These unfortunate creatures are slaves. They are not called slaves. Slavery is not permitted by the constitution of the Republic. […] The explanation is very simple: every plantation worker must buy what he needs at the plantation store. He is given credit and encouraged to get into debt. Once in debt, he is a slave. He has no hope of clearing his debt. » (People of All Nations: Their life today and story of their past, J.A. Hammerton P.1627)
In this context, arose new popular revendications and the first workers associations and syndicates were created.
The cacao crisis (1920)
The increase of the world production in the new colonies such as Ivory Coast or Indonesia as well as in Brazil (trees had finally reached maturity) and the start of the First World War led to a market saturation, lower demand and falling prices. Finally, an outbreak of Monilia and Witches’ Broom diseases (1915-1920) finished to depress the cacao industry locally. The production dropped to 15,000 MT in 1930 and soon plantations were abandoned by their owners.
The current model (since 2000)
Nowadays the country is a major player in the international cocoa market not due to volumes but to quality. The demand for specialty cocoa is growing and outweighs supplies which creates a very attractive niche market. Ecuador’s cacao annual production is above 230,000 MT since 2013 and continues rising:
Ecuador counts approximately 100,000 cacao producers (not always exclusively), out of which 85% cultivate less than 10ha, 15% between 10 and 20ha and 5% more than 20ha.
The increasing demand for organic and Fairtrade cocoa also helps to improve small producers’ income. A survey made with a representative group of cocoa producers in the Manabí province showed that 69.8% produced or have produced at one point with a Fairtrade label.
However, one of the representatives of the Kallari association (https://www.kallari.com.ec/), explained that the annual cost, some non-adapted procedures and the lack of selling premium were the reasons why they stopped their Fairtrade certification. Hence extent of Fairtrade certification locally is not necessarily representative of the actual treatment of the producers. What is more representative is the rise of producers’ associations, sometimes establishing their own bean to bar transformation and selling onto the domestic or foreign market. As such they control the whole value chain and ensure fair revenues for the whole community. One representation of this trend on the domestic market is Kallari, composed of 850 producers (mainly Quechua families) from 21 communities of the Tena region in the Ecuadorian Amazon:
Although slavery and forced labour constitute a large part of the history of the commercial cacao production in Ecuador (for 3 centuries), Ecuador’s cacao industry has taken a drastic turn in the last 100 years placing it in the top 10 world producers targeting the niche market of specialty cacao produced mainly by small farmers more and more organised into producers associations that allow them to capture a fairer revenue for their cacao beans or a bigger part of the value chain through transformation of the raw products and marketing of the bars.
Martin, Carla D.“MesoAmerica and the « food of gods »”, Harvard University, AAAS E-119, 2018
Martin, Carla D.“Slavery, abolition and forced labour”, Harvard University, AAAS E-119, 2018
Chiriboga, Manuel (2013). Jornaleros, grandes propietarios y exportación cacaotera 1790-1925. Quito: Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar.
Vassallo, Miguel Diferenciación y agregado de valor en la cadena ecuatoriana del cacao / Miguel Vassallo. — 1ª. ed. — Quito: Editorial Instituto de Altos Estudios Nacionales IAEN, 2015
Wilmer S. Sepúlveda, Irinuska Ureta, Claudia Mendoza & Louiza Chekmam (2017): Ecuadorian Farmers Facing Coffee and Cocoa Production Quality Labels, Journal of International Food & Agribusiness Marketing, DOI: 10.1080/08974438.2017.1413612. P 7
Radi y Martínez, 2008: 4.
Melo & Hollander, 2013