Tag Archives: indigenous

The cacao production workforce in Ecuador throughout history

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.



Works Cited

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


Web Sources






A Brief Review Of A Bean-To-Bar Company:


 The Case Of Xocolatl Mexica

When one first accesses Xocolatl Mexica’s website, it is possible to read “Since 1989 we fabricate pure Xocolatl made with 100% organic Mexican cacao and ancestral natural flavours.” The small Mexican chocolatier was founded about 30 years ago by local entrepreneurs trained in the ancestral art of Xocolatl making and consumption, and since then, they have made it their mission to modify the way in which Mexican societies think about chocolate. By going back to the roots of the tradition, the small company aims to restore indigenous handling of the basic ingredients with which Xocolatl and chocolate were prepared in the past in order to reincorporate them to mainstream society. In this essay I will evaluate the processes that take place in and through this bean-to-bar chocolate company in order to offer quality products, this with the objective of corroborating the affirmation that Xocolatl Mexica is a sustainable, fair company that is helping solve some problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain.

History of the Company

Xocolatl Mexica is a small family-owned company that was founded in Aguascalientes, Mexico in 1989. Their name comes from the Mayan word ‘Xocolatl’ which translates to ‘bitter water,’ and ‘Mexica,’ which references the homonymous indigenous civilization. According to the company itself, they started experimenting with a few kilograms of cacao in a household setting, trying original indigenous recipes and disregarding the practices of larger chocolatiers and other companies in order to create an authentic Xocolatl essence that stemmed from original local techniques. In their own words, it was “thanks to a trial and error process that [they] learned that cacao must be worked and that every stage of the preparation requires specific knowledge and dedication to ensure that its texture and aroma can be brought to their best.”

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Logo of the company depicting their name and a historically accurate representation of Xocolatl consumption by indigenous people.

The company aims to bring back the traditional preparation method of the Xocolatl, which was a beverage created by the Olmeca people during the Prehispanic era of Mesoamerica that involved the use of cacao beans and water and was sometimes utilized in rituals. It was known as the beverage of the gods and the Maya and Aztec people also used it for years. Xocolatl has had about 4000 years of history, and chocolate as we known it today has only been around for a couple centuries. By going back to the basics of cacao consumption, Xocolatl Mexica aims to restore the conception that the people of Mesoamerica—nowadays partially Mexico—have of cacao, chocolate, and their relevance in social and folkloric practices (Godiva Chocolate, Inc.).

Xocolatl as a beverage was taken to Europe where it was modified, still in liquid form until 1828 when Van Houten invented the hydraulic press that allowed for a solid version to be created. Even though this allowed for ease of spread of chocolate to the masses, Xocolatl Mexica views this transition from liquid to solid consumption of cacao as a sacrilegious happening that corrupted the “beverage of the gods” by adding fats, lower quality cacao, and other impure ingredients that detracted from the natural scents of cacao and other natural Mesoamerican additives. It is because of this transformation that the company wants to return to organic processes.

Cacao Sourcing

The cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica ranges from the coasts of Chiapas, where the plant grew naturally since ancient times. It is Cacao Criollo and is grown organically by local Chiapaneco producers who are also fairly remunerated. Furthermore, the supply chain is reduced by the direct purchase from cacao plantations without any intermediate steps, which in turn accounts for a higher return to the producers themselves.

In this map, it is possible to see the Mexican state of Chiapas, where the cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica comes form.

Xocolatl Mexica works with Cacao México, an initiative similar to the Mexico Cocoa Project that the Hershey Company and Mars have in Mexico with the same nonprofit organization, but that unlike the further, is completely independent from the chocolatier, which means that information about progress cannot be tainted by a conflict of interests or economic impediments. The Cocoa Project is a subsection of Cacao México that focuses on the practices of Hershey and Mars and has as a goal the improvement of their production systems in particular (Cacao México).

Cacao México aims to promote an increase in high quality cacao production in Mexico (as of now, Mexico is not even close to West Africa even though cacao is native to Mesoamerica) by fomenting sustainable farming practices and supporting the improvement of the life conditions of agriculture workers and their families (Triple Pundit).

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Image of the cacao used by Xocolatl Mexica for the fabrication of their products. 

This all is really important because it not only means that Xocolatl Mexica sources their cacao from sustainable producers that do not negatively impact the environment, but furthermore, the company works with partners that endeavour to ensure that the producers of the crop are actually benefitted and justly remunerated by their labour. The current international climate around the production of cacao and the lack of fair-trade systems in many countries around the world calls for responsible consumers that engage in efforts that strive for equality amid those involved in the chain from bean to bar, which is why companies that make this an integral part of their work are crucial for societal understanding of the magnitude of the issue and the solutions that can be taken to fix it.


The products sold by Xocolatl Mexica go through most of the same processes that other cacao-based products do, with the only exception that no hydraulic presses are utilized by the company due to their philosophy of no separation of components. As it was mentioned before in this paper, the company as a whole believes that separating different parts of cacao is a transgression of the organic qualities that the plant possesses and those that it can provide as an ingredient, which is why they do not use presses in their preparation processes.

However, the rest of the machinery normally used is still employed by Xocolatl Mexica, albeit specifically crafted to fit their company goals. “Every machine has been carefully crafted, following [the company’s] necessities, which means that the machines have adapted to the Xocolatl and not the other way around,” ensuring that their main objective of going back to the roots of cacao consumption is still met. In addition to that, many of the methods of modification for cacao seeds that the company makes use of liken those that ancient civilizations used too, utilizing metates and molcajetes to achieve a more rustic grinding that preserves more aromas and textures characteristic of cacao.

Ancestral preparations of Xocolatl oft included flowers or spices native to Mexico, which in addition to smells and tastes, gave medicinal properties that added to those of cacao. Xocolatl Mexica produces several products that include ingredients such as organic vanilla bean, chili peppers, magnolia flowers, and honey. They also mention how some components of ancient Xocolatl were produced by using plants that have gone extinct and thus are no longer available for consumption, which is important when raising awareness about the potential ecological future of different vegetal ingredients that are consumed by the general population and have a cultural impact, creating an example of virtuous consumership. By presenting the case of these ingredients in particular, the company ensures that whoever consumes their products has some sort of historical context, is able to appreciate whatever ingredients go into current products, and understands why preservation efforts are crucial not only for biological wellbeing, but also for cultural continuation.

Culture of Consumption

A very important component of Xocolatl Mexica’s cultural restoration efforts is the fact that they have established a Chocolatería that people can come to in order to consume their products. This locale is different from a store because the way in which it was designed embodies everything that the company has set as their mission. Their different products are offered there, served in clay xicalli and accompanied by wooden molinillos that can be used to froth the beverages. Both the xicalli and the molinillos have existed in Mexico for over 2000 years, and the ones used in the Chocolatería have been designed in cooperation with local artisans in order to be historically accurate and reflect indigenous traditions of cacao consumption (Bowman).

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Picture depicting a xicalli and a molinillo next to a clay jar possibly containing Xocolatl.

The accompaniments offered by this place include tamalli, crêpes, confitures, and cacao fondue, which also speaks to the goal of situating cacao and its products as edibles that can constitute something other than a dessert. In mainstream culture, cacao and its derivatives are often only seen as desserts or side dishes, whereas in ancient times, Xocolatl and other preparations were considered dishes in an of themselves, so prestigious even that they were offered to deities worshiped by the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica. The fact that Xocolatl Mexica pushes for a reconsideration of the place of cacao in the normative diet brings back traditions dating from years gone by that were representative of the culture of prehispanic populations.

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Snap of the Chocolatería where Xocolatl Mexica sells their products.


Xocolatl Mexica asks the common person to reconsider what their thoughts on cacao-based products are, and to think beyond mainstream chocolate. Their efforts to restore indigenous practices by incorporating instruments such as molinillos and xicalli, as well as the creation of a space destined specifically for the consumption of their products speaks of their commitment to their cause as an immersive experience rather than a commercial transaction (Puratos). Furthermore, their sourcing and processing of cacao are sustainable, fair, and true to their mission; by only accepting the parts of the process that they believe do not detract from the essence of the Xocolatl, they preserve the inherent aromas, textures, and flavours of cacao, which in turn results in a more authentic tasting experience.

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The Obsidiana chocolate bars are some of the most popular products sold by Xocolatl Mexica.

In the words of their mission:

“El objetivo que tenemos con la chocolatería es difundir la cultura del cacao y del chocolate puro. Por eso, con mucho gusto estamos dispuestos a dar explicaciones sobre el cultivo del cacao y de la fabricación del chocolate. Desgraciadamente, esta cultura milenaria se ha perdido con los años en México, pero queremos que el patrimonio Mexica y Maya siga vivo para que cada uno de los mexicanos y los extranjeros valoren la cultura mexicana y la calidad de sus productos.”

“The objective that we have with chocolate-manufacturing is the diffusion of the culture of cacao and pure chocolate. It is because of that that we are more than happy to provide explanations about the cultivation of cacao and the fabrication of chocolate. Sadly, this millennial culture has been lost in Mexico with the passing of years, but we want that the Mexica and Mayan heritage remains alive so that each Mexican and each foreigner is able to value Mexican culture and the quality of its products.”

By staying true to their roots and revitalizing local traditions while supporting the economic growth of the region, and by overseeing and caring for every step in their manufacturing process  from the production of their ingredients to the containers in which they serve their beverages, Xocolatl Mexica can justly be said to be a sustainable, fair company that is helping solve problems in the cacao-chocolate supply chain.

Works Cited:

Pictures taken from Xocolatl Mexica’s website, and from Wikimedia Commons.

Bowman, Barbara. “Molinillo – Mexican Chocolate Whisk (Stirrer).” Gourmet Sleuth. GourmetSleuth, Inc, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/articles/detail/molinillo

“Cacao México.” Cacao México. Telaio, n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.cacaomexico.org/?page_id=1402

“Hershey Goes to Mexico: The Mexico Cocoa Project.” Triple Pundit People Planet Profit. Triple Pundit, 22 June 2012. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.triplepundit.com/2012/06/hershey-pledges-improve-cocoa-farming-conditions-mexico/

Mintz, Sidney W. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York, NY: Viking, 1985. Print.

“Sustainable Cocoa Production and Livelihood Improvement in Mexico.” Puratos: Reliable Partners in Innovation. Puratos Group, 2016. Web. 4 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.puratos.com/en/our-group/sustainability/CSR-programs/tikul.jsp

“The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs.” The History of Chocolate: The Mayans and Aztecs. Godiva Chocolate, Inc., n.d. Web. 04 May 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.godivachocolates.co.uk/the-history-of-chocolate-mayans-aztecs.html

“Xocolatl Mexica | Fábrica De Chocolate.” http://www.xocolatlmexica.com. Xocolatl Mexica, 2007. Web. 04 May 2016.