- A handful of pioneering Amazonian chocolatiers are promoting keeping the rainforest standing by taking advantage of two forest products: cacao and cupuaçu.
- Selling high-end chocolate made from both of these closely related pods increases the value of the products and also allows local communities to earn higher incomes, thereby giving them an incentive not to deforest.
- Portable biofactories are also set to teach traditional communities how to make bean-to-bar premium chocolate products, helping to increase the value of the raw cacao by up to 2,000%.
- These projects are part of an emerging bioeconomy in the Amazonian region, which experts say will keep the rainforest standing while also lifting the region’s population out of poverty.
The idea that the best chocolate was thought to come from Europe or Central America bothered César de Mendes. Growing up in the Brazilian Amazon, he would watch his mother prepare cocoa from the fruit she picked and had a hunch that it could be transformed into a premium product. He also knew that, by making chocolate locally, he could benefit both the rainforest and the traditional communities that lived there.
A one-time chemist, de Mendes decided to trade his academic career for a new venture as a chocolate entrepreneur, launching the tree-to-table brand De Mendes Chocolates in 2014. Since then, he’s continued to source his cacao (Theobroma cacao), the fruit used to make cocoa, exclusively from traditional and Indigenous communities, paying them up to six times the market value for the fruit.
“The cacao supplied by the traditional communities to our factory is all native,” Roberto Favero, a director at De Mendes, told Mongabay. “With the financial support given by De Mendes Chocolates, these communities will not need to deforest to produce another product to support themselves.”
Among the communities de Mendes works with are the Indigenous Yanomami and Ye’kawana, teaching them to make fine cocoa from the cacao that grows within their territories. In 2019, he launched the first chocolate product made entirely by the Indigenous people, who picked and produced premium 69% chocolate bars. As Resende Sanöma, a community leader and director of the Hutukara Yanomami Association, told the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that advocates for Indigenous and environmental rights and is also involved in the production: “We are familiar with Nescau [Nestlé-brand chocolate powder] and chocolate biscuits, but not with how chocolate is produced, although it is made from cocoa that grows in our forests.”
Building a new economic model
The economic model in the Amazon is currently centered on rampant deforestation for agricultural expansion or mining, a surefire way to guarantee the rainforest’s demise, experts warn. They argue the only way to both save the rainforest and reduce poverty is to provide alternative livelihood options that help increase the value of the standing rainforest — exactly what de Mendes, alongside other producers and entrepreneurs, is doing with cacao.
Cacao already has a strong foothold in the market. Brazil is the world’s seventh-largest producer and exporter of cocoa, and its quality is globally recognized. Three Brazilian cocoa producers were awarded among the 50 best in the world at the latest Cocoa of Excellence Awards held in Rome in 2021: two from the state of Bahia, Brazil’s cacao-growing hotspot, and one from the Amazonian state of Pará.
Now, a Pará government project hopes to boost the value of Amazonian cacao even further by promoting Pará-born premium chocolate producers at fairs and events to help them enter international markets.
“Pará has a lot of quality in the manufacture of chocolate and cacao seeds, and we have today the possibility of presenting it to the world,” João Carlos Ramos, head of Pará’s agricultural and fishing agency, SEDAP, said in a statement.
Alongside native cacao, the other rising star in the Amazon is cupuaçu (Theobroma grandiflorum), which experts are betting on to turn the rainforest into a billion-dollar bioeconomic powerhouse.
Cacao generated 3.5 billion reais ($709 million) in Brazil last year, while cupuaçu raked in 54.8 million reais ($11.1 million) in 2017, according to the most recent data from the national statistics office, IBGE. However, researchers say these figures could reach much higher. A study by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and the New Climate Economy, published in June, analyzed 13 primary products from the Amazon, including cacao and cupuaçu, and concluded that even this small sample of products could grow the bioeconomy’s GDP by at least 38.5 billion reais ($8 billion) per year.
Cupuaçu, commonly known as “cacao’s cousin” and from the same genus, isn’t as well known outside South America. It resembles the rugby-ball shape of cacao, and its flesh is traditionally used to make jellies, ice creams, juices and liqueurs. However, some Amazonian visionaries are increasing the value of cupuaçu by mixing it with chocolate to create unique, premium products.
Gaudens Chocolate, a Pará-based chocolatier, is one of the region’s biggest success stories for taking cupuaçu to foreign markets, having won the bronze prize at the 2022 London Academy of Chocolate for its unique blend of white chocolate and cupuaçu fruit.
Gaudens began in 2004 when founder and lifelong chocolatier Fábio Sicília noticed that despite Brazil being a leader in cacao production, no one was producing premium chocolate from the Amazonian region. This inspired him to launch Gaudens Chocolate with a plan to “produce high-quality chocolates made in Pará,” he told Mongabay. Like De Mendes, Sicília buys cacao from local Amazonian communities. He also purchases other ingredients from them, such as bacuri (Platonia insignis) and açaí (Euterpe oleracea), as well as cupuaçu, simultaneously making unique-flavored chocolates and increasing income sources for local populations.
‘The real value is in the seed’
Other specialists are finding alternative ways of increasing the value of cupuaçu. “We always say that the real value is in the seed and not in the fruit,” Rafael Moysés Alves, a cupuaçu expert and researcher at Brazil’s agricultural research agency, Embrapa, told Mongabay. “We [at Embrapa] believe that cupuaçu is the third great product of the Amazon [after açaí and cacao],” he said, adding that the seed can be used to make “cupulate,” a form of chocolate that “has similar characteristics to chocolate” but is “softer and melts easier in the mouth, because of the quality of the butter in the seeds.”
Embrapa is betting heavily on the economic potential of cupulate, including registering the exclusive rights to the name in 2015. The product, made with the roasted seeds of cupuaçu yet free of caffeine and theobromine, was developed in the 1980s by Embrapa researcher Raimunda Fatima Ribeiro de Nazare, according to the agency.
Embrapa has since studied cupulate extensively, but never yet put it into commercial production, Ismael Nobre, a biologist and executive director of the nonprofit Instituto Amazônia 4.0, told Mongabay. The wealth of research generated points to an opportunity to “change the logic of development in the Amazon, from an extractive logic that consumes forests, to a value-added forest products logic,” he said.
“We rescued these studies from the past and then designed something which could potentially still be used today,” he added. This “something” is Creative Laboratories: solar-powered, portable biofactories that are environmentally friendly and pollution-free. Developed by Instituto Amazônia 4.0 and financed by donations and investment funds, the mini biofactories aim to turn small local cooperatives and subsistence-level producers into sustainable and profitable businesses involved in the entire bean-to-bar chocolate and cupulate production. Eventually, the hope is that these businesses will be able to use the income generated from their production to pay for the factories’ services.
The factory production process can transform raw cacao that costs 10 reais ($2) per kilogram (about 90 cents a pound) into fine chocolate that fetches 200 reais ($41) per kg ($18.20 per lb), dramatically increasing the income of the communities involved while preserving the surrounding environment. “You can densify or you can better manage the trees that are already there so they will produce a little more. But you don’t need to deforest an area for a plantation,” Nobre said.
The “plug and play” biofactories are 100-square-meter (1,076-square-foot) dome-shaped units that can be put together in a week in the rainforest communities’ territories, granting them access to cocoa and cupulate production processes controlled by facial recognition and voice commands. The machines are supported in several languages, including Indigenous ones, widening access to non-Portuguese speakers.
The factories also feature 3D printers so that the chocolate and cupulate can have cultural references and local art printed on them. “We don’t want it to be just another chocolate like any other, but a unique chocolate with an Amazonian context,” Nobre said. It’s this unique selling point that experts say should push up the monetary value of the bean-to-bar chocolate and cupulate, reinforcing the need to preserve a standing forest.
Nobre said he expects the biofactories to be rolled out later this year, training communities such as Afro-Brazilian Quilombolas and riverine ribeirinho populations to make chocolate and cupulate from scratch, similar to how de Mendes worked with the Yanomami and Ye’Kawana Indigenous populations. For Nobre, this could be a solution not just to save the Amazon Rainforest but other tropical forests worldwide too.
“All this potential, these new technologies allow us to take a leap in adding value to Amazonian cacao and cupuaçu, something impossible before,” Nobre said. “It’s generating new economic processes based on the standing forest, with communities as its main beneficiaries.”
Banner image: Ismael Nobre, right, is a biologist and executive director of the nonprofit Instituto Amazônia 4.0, the organization behind the biofactory concept. At his lefe, João Neves, a cupuaçu producer from the Amazon. Image © Sônia Soares/Instituto Amazônia 4.0.
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