The end of August was a milestone for Scharffen Berger and our Cacao Code. Partnering with Camino Cacao and Henrique Sousa we held our first farmer symposium on syntropic cacao farming.
Syntropic cacao farming is one of the pillars of our Cacao Code. It uses the concept of successional agroforestry to build multi-strata systems that mimic native rainforests but are composed completely of tree species that either provide direct income to the farmer or provide ecosystem services that support those species providing income. They can be fruit trees, tree nuts, spices, medicinal plants, or trees that simply provide biomass to the system and build soil organic matter. The important thing is that they form compatible plant consortiums that thrive together. Cacao is important because it occupies the understory of the syntropic system—the rainforest strata that receives the least sunlight.
Henrique Sousa, one of Scharffen Berger’s sourcing partners, is a pioneer in syntropic farming. His farm, Fazenda Ouro Fino, in Bahia, Brazil is a thirty-three-hectare model of how man and nature can live together. In addition to farming, he, his wife Rose, and their children, entertain and train agricultural students and farmers from around the world. When not hosting students on his farm Henrique travels the world teaching and spreading the gospel of syntropic farming. It was in this capacity that Scharffen Berger invited him to Mexico to train cacao farmers engaged with another Scharffen Berger sourcing partner, Camino Cacao.
Camino Cacao is a social enterprise with financial support from RRG Solutions Mexico. Their objective is to improve the livelihoods of small holder farmers through the purchase, processing, and sale of premium quality cacao. They also provide technical assistance focused on syntropic farming techniques that revitalize aging cacao farms with diversified crop portfolios designed to improve income and resilience to the challenges of climate change. Scharffen Berger is supporting Camino Cacao with technical assistance for postharvest processing and syntropic agriculture.
Our week began on Monday afternoon with the arrival of Henrique and his son Elias in Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco. Villahermosa, as the name suggests, is a beautiful city that rises out of the lowlands bordering the Gulf of Mexico. It sits on the banks of the Rio Grihalva, named for one of Cortez’s lieutenants. Nearby La Venta and San Lorenzo in neighboring Veracruz were once hubs of the Olmec civilization, the earliest known people to domesticate cacao and consume chocolate. They are best remembered today by the colossal stone heads of helmeted chiefs they carved out of granite, and which were uncovered when oil exploration began in the region. Thy can be seen in the Parque Museo La Venta, a beautiful park in the the center of Villahermosa.
In 2016 the Mexican government issued a Denomination of Origin for the cacao produced in in the Grijalva Region of Tabasco giving it the name “Cacao Grijalva”. Cacao Grijalva is the fermented cacao produced in three regions: Chontalpa, Sierra and Centro.
Over the next four days we visited cacao farms that ranged from almost completely abandoned to actively managed. At each farm Henrique and Elias questioned the farmer on his or her practices, their problems, their challenges, their expectations. They examined the soils, the health of the cacao trees, the quality of pruning, the state of the shade trees. They observed what other species were present that could provide income, that might grow well with cacao and be part of a syntropic consortium.
Each day we made two presentations to groups of farmers interested in joining Camino Cacao. Each group consisted of twenty to thirty farmers. The sessions were each held on cacao farms and consisted of a classroom presentation and then actual demonstrations and discussions out on the farm. Henrique is an incredible motivational speaker. Listening to him speak and watching him interact with the farmers gave me goosebumps. He lives syntropic cacao farming. He is highly successful farmer in Brazil, and he knows how to speak to and inspire cacao farmers.
I have participated in dozens of cacao training session run by staff agronomists, and some were good, but none of them had the fire that Henrique has. It is one thing to be taught by someone who has studied agronomy, but quite another to be taught by someone who lives it. And not only were there cacao farmers in the sessions, but representatives from chocolate companies, universities, and the government. We even had the Minister of Tourism for the State of Tabasco in the audience for one session and the Chief of Party for USAID.
For the last session we moved to a farm in the state of Chiapas. Different from the first five sessions that were held on farms already planted with cacao, this farm was degraded pasture—the perfect starting point for a syntropic cacao farm. On this farm the regenerative process will begin with bananas, pigeon peas, hog beans, achiote and cacao. As the system matures the cacao and timber and fruit trees, all planted at the same time will shade out the achiote, bananas and legumes and will create a structured rainforest where once there was only pasture.
Friday evening, we sat down at dinner and assessed the week which everyone agreed was a success. We estimated that we directly reached almost 150 cacao farmers, most of whom were enthusiastically interested in joining Camino Cacao, but beyond that, since many of the attendees were representing farmer organizations, it’s possible that the total impact extended to over 500 cacao farmers. In addition, we gained the interest of a large European chocolate company as well as the local representative from USAID and scientists from the University of Veracruz and government officials. In 2024 the director of Camino Cacao intends to send his supervisory staff to Brazil for a month-long training session with Henrique at Fazenda Ouro Fino and with support from Scharffen Berger he intends to bring Henrique back to Mexico to train the field agronomists. Not bad for our first symposium.
At Scharffen Berger we are excited to see our Cacao Code kick into action. What it shows is that small chocolate companies can punch above their weight class if they understand and strategically select how they invest in their supply chains. In 2024, we plan to continue to work with farmers in our supply chain and introduce them to syntropic agroforestry.