I have been rather quiet of late on this blog as I was in Bolivia, mainly in order to facilitate an eight-country workshop sharing experiences in promoting gender and social equity – but also catching up on some of our specific project activities in Bolivia. Thus the next few postings will have a Latin American focus.
Each workshop participant received, on arrival, a folder containing the workshop papers. Tucked inside was an additional envelope containing a bar of dark and extremely good chocolate – a nice thought on the part of Gabriela Sadud Alarcon, Project Manager of our cocoa project in Bolivia.
Before hopes are raised, I should point out that only Bolivian-based readers of this blog are likely to be able to sample this chocolate, which only sources cocoa solids from our project, as it is produced and sold in Bolivia by a local company (SOLUR SRL “Para ti”).
The project is funded directly by Helvetas, and with a budget of some CHF 250,000 per annum, it is not a large project. It is, however, a good example of what we aim to do under projects conceived and designed by our own staff (rather than by donors) in that it seeks to be innovative – to test interventions that, if successful, could potentially be taken up by a large donor for wider funding. In this case, the basic idea was to support small communities of the indigenous Tacana, Leco, Tsimanes and Mosetenes peoples living in the Bolivian Amazon to gain a sustainable livelihood from harvesting and processing naturally occurring, wild cocoa. The trees (which require the shade of a forest canopy to flourish) yield cacao beans of a very high quality, but their occurrence is scattered, meaning that harvesting takes time and effort. Where there are very few or no trees, agroforestry using wild variety cocoa seedlings grown in a nursery has been introduced – but the focus is nevertheless on promoting the sustainable harvesting of the wild trees. The project area lies on the borders of the Madidi National Park, and clearly part of the thinking, with regard to eventual up-scaling of activities, is forest conservation. If local people gain a regular income from cocoa, they are less likely to be tempted to clear forest for agriculture, and more likely to resist logging activities by outsiders. On conservation matters, Gabriela and her team work in partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society.
The people participating in this project are organised into a cocoa producer’s association. Living in small, dispersed settlements close to rivers (which are the main form of navigation), they often have to travel some distance to reach basic government facilities such as a health post and primary school. At the planning stage of interventions, time was taken to understand their history of settlement and lifestyle, their means of subsistence, and the prevailing gender dynamics. Gabriela is particularly proud of various ways in which the roles of men and women have been taken into account. Whilst it is the men who usually harvest the cocoa in the forest, it is the women who process it – with men helping during peak seasons. Care in every stage of processing is crucial for ensuring cocoa quality, which gives a clear validation of women’s role, and has paved the way for discussions on how women’s burden of other work could be reduced. As a result, improved stoves are being installed that require less fuelwood and thus less time for fuelwood collection – a very common “gendered intervention” but nevertheless often an effective one (also reducing eye problems caused by smoke). A system of “communal pot” was also introduced, one woman and one man (in rotation) cooking lunch for everyone during the harvesting period – thus allowing other women to continue processing. The amount of cocoa processed by each household is recorded by the cocoa producers’ association, and the return from its sale distributed accordingly. Although much of the income generated goes to regular household expenses, some is kept for a community fund, and decisions over its use are made jointly. Thus one recent investment pushed by women – conscious of the importance of hygiene as a result of training – has been the construction of toilets.
Although chocolate from wild Bolivian cocoa might be difficult to find on supermarket shelves, another Helvetas cocoa project, in Honduras, does supply high quality, albeit cultivated, cocoa for specialist chocolate sold by the Coop. It’s a Fair Trade product, and highly recommended.