Mario Choque in his cocoa field in Bolivia.
4 April 2018, Rome – Bolivia is a country of spectacular landscapes and profoundly diverse environments.
North of the capital La Paz, in a region called Alto Beni, right where the Andes give way to Amazon forest, FAO is working with a community of Andean people that cultivate a world-famous cocoa variety, the “Criollo” cocoa, renowned for its nutritional values.
Without easy access to the market in La Paz, and to avoid expensive intermediaries, farmers grouped in small cooperatives, which in 1977 formed a central organization named El Ceibo. Today El Ceibo is a leading cooperative in Bolivia, counting 48 cooperative members and including 1300 producers.
El Ceibo’s business model is based on the principles of cooperation and agroecology, while large parts of its revenues are reinvested at local level to the benefit of its smallholder farmers and the entire community.
Since 2015 FAO supports El Ceibo in different ways, by providing technical support, facilitating access to new markets, and brokering agreements with the Bolivian government to protect the interests of small cocoa farmers.
Mario Choque is cocoa farmer and member of the El Ceibo cooperative.
“We are mainly cacao producers”, explains Mario. “However, when the cacao is growing, we try to prepare other kinds of products ready for consumption”.
El Ceibo small-holder farmers plant about 3-4 hectares of land with cocoa seeds, while the rest (7-8 ha) is cultivated – using agro-forestry methods – with rice, yucca, bananas, citrus fruits, coffee and other local produces, that are then sold at local markets.
“We produce maize, but we also make flour out of it,” says Mario. “We have fruits, from which I sometimes make jam. I can sell them and make extra money from it.” We diversify our land because when the cacao production is low, it supports us with food and incomes from the sales of what’s left.”
Cocoa indeed is a fragile crop. Climate shocks like droughts, floods, extreme humidity and new plant diseases like the dreadful Monilia fungus, are threatening the production of cocoa and the very livelihoods of the farmers in the Alto Beni.
To face these new challenges, El Ceibo reinvests part of its profits in the so-called Agro-Ecological and Forest Implementations Program (PIAF), the technical arm of the cooperative. The PIAF is constantly looking for sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to diseases and challenges threatening the local cocoa production.
“PIAF helps me a lot,” says Mario. “They trained us as producers. They showed us how to create our own nursery garden, how to take care of it and how to make the phytosanitary management of our plantation.” He says they now apply these teachings to their land and get better results.
Once the cocoa is collected, it is transported across the Andes, on one of the most dangerous roads in Bolivia, to the factory of El Ceibo in the city of El Alto. Here it is transformed into cacao powder, cocoa butter and chocolate. This represents one of the few examples where the entire production line is controlled by the same cooperative.
From El Alto, El Ceibo’s products are sold across Bolivia but also on the international market in countries like Italy for example.
Here, thanks to an agreement between FAO, the leading Fair-Trade group Altromercato, and the multinational catering company Autogrill, El Ceibo’s chocolate is sold on the shelves of Autogrill Bistros in Milan, Venice and Rome among others.
The project started small this year but things are already looking good: after an initial test-phase , El Ceibo’s chocolate can now be found in over 11 Autogrill Bistros along the Italian highways, selected airports and railway stations .
FAO’s work for small-holder cocoa farmers in Bolivia
In Bolivia, FAO and its Forest and Farm Facility* (FFF), is also working with El Ceibo providing human and financial support to the Confederation of Bolivian Producers and Collectors of Ecological Cacao (COPRACAO), an organization that represents the five Bolivian departmental federations where cocoa producers and collectors operate. COPRACAO represents around 5,600 cocoa producers and collectors, 40 percent of its members are women.
Through a partnership with El Ceibo and COPRACAO, FAO and FFF have contributed to the establishment of the legal status of all Bolivian cocoa associations and organizing national and departmental meetings where COPRACAO’ statutes and regulations can be discussed with the base associations.
FAO is also working closely with the Bolivian government and the representatives of cocoa associations for elaborating a National Cocoa Program, which aims to strengthen the cocoa’s productive system, taking into account regional specificities.
Finally, in 2017 FAO worked in partnership with El Ceibo and Roma Tre University to document El Ceibo’s good practices in terms of organizational, economic and financial sustainability and related contribution to the setting up of COPRACAO. This initiative also supports FAO’s activities in the framework of South-South Cooperation so that El Ceibo’s experience can be shared with other producer organizations and policy makers outside Bolivia.
*The FAO Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) provides support to forest and farm producer organizations (smallholders, rural women’s groups, local communities and indigenous peoples’ institutions) to increase their technical and business capacities to play their precious role for fighting against climate change and improving food security.