When arriving to the Ecuadorian Amazon in 2017 we had no idea that cacao would be our main focus today. There was a good understanding of its therapeutic qualities and health benefits, but we had not yet been properly introduced to the fascinating world of this heart opening medicinal plant.
It was actually while looking for Guayusa when we found an association of 13 farming communities all dedicated to the conservation of the Arriba Nacional cacao strain, also known as Fino de Aroma, or just simply Nacional. Heirloom varieties such as Arriba Nacional are becoming rare due to hybrid strains entering the eco system.
Most paste that claims to be 100% Arriba Nacional cacao coming out of South America will have traces of CCN51, a strain that is far less superior in quality. The high yield from CCN51 mono crop farming can be attractive for many farmers and processors to work with. (As a side note - this isn’t where unethical practices stop. Since the start of the journey in search for ethical farming entities to work with its difficult take organic, fair trade, or any accreditation seriously. In our experience, some of these guys were the worst perpetrators of dodgy practices.)
There are, though, farmers and processors with principles. They stand out a mile and that’s because of the pride that goes into what they do. This dedication shows in their farming and production practices, which always transfers into a superior end product. If you’re looking for cacao that comes from Kichwa farming communities its always worth checking to see what farming methods they employ. If they use their ancestral Chakra method, its a good indication that great care has gone into the process. Chakra, also known as jungle farming, involves organic, permaculture, poly culture and small holder farming principles. A tree won’t be cut or planted unless the action works in harmony with the eco system.
Once harvest is ready it’s taken wet to the association to get weighed and quality checked, before the fermentation process starts. This is where farmers convert their crop into cash. The farmers we work with are paid more than double than average for sticking to their principles. In comparison, if you go to the local towns you’ll see lots of middlemen trading natural products from neighbouring communities, typically with a buy and sell exchange rate sign outside of their premises. It’s always low in price (both buy and sell). With a rising demand in cacao quantity over quality is their focus. Buyers will often cut ancestral varieties with hybrid strains and then pass it off as 100% heirloom. A lot of beans that are found in these places are dried on asphalt, which makes the cacao carcinogenic. You see this being done along many of the bus routes. These beans are often bought by “ethical” cooperatives - often who have the aforementioned accreditation’s. If it’s cheap, you know why.
Next is the processing stage (fermentation, drying, grinding etc). Again, finding a cacao processor who puts the right amount of care into this isn’t the easiest of tasks. Although, when you do its a breath of fresh air. Fermentation boxes being cleaned after use, fermentation methods perfected, raised dry racks made out the right materials (even this can effect the taste) - it all makes a difference to the final product.
The Ayni Way only works with associations and farming communities that put care into everything they do. We hope that sharing this content can eventually inspire others to do the same.