Harvesting organic cacao in the Amazonian highlands socio-ecological systems

Jilmar Castañeda, our M2 student from the ‘Gouvernance de la transition : écologie et societés’ visited different Amazonian indigenous communities to study « Governance issues and the way small cocoa producers self-organize to face economic risks – certifications, market price volatility – and climate perturbations ». In these pictures, he is harvesting together with the Kichwa community in the Napo province, Northern Ecuador. This organic cocoa is sold through a community-based association of small producers.



Cocoa production has become an economic boost alternative for many communities in developing countries. However, it is still unknown to what extent this activity influences the creation and stability of social-ecological systems. This work applied the Social-Ecological-System (SES) framework developed by E. Ostrom (2007) to evaluate and compare the structure and dynamics of SESs that have been built around two commons resources: native cocoa trees and the land in the Amazon forest region in Eastern Ecuador. We asked specifically if cocoa production is a key factor to create a self-organizing SES capable of dealing with external pressures such as international labeling -the European market in particular- and risks of climatic variability effects.

We conducted the study through targeted interviews in four Amazonian indigenous communities. The first two communities, ‘Pumayacu’ and ‘Santa Rita’ belong to the Kichwa ethnic group, located in Northern Amazon. The other two communities, ‘Yawi el Cisne’ and ‘Tuntiak’ belong to the Shuar ethnic group located in Southern Amazon of Ecuador. These communities were chosen because a) the possibility that they have native or wild cocoa trees; and b) the certification process for the European cocoa markets is in progress, already completed or absent at all. In addition, data were collected from other key actors involved in the cocoa chain value such as public, private and international organizations based in Ecuador.

Our findings showed us that the level of self-organization is low within the Shuar communities compared to the Kichwa communities but both are heavily dependent on external support.

Currently, only some families in Tuntiak (Shuar community) are receiving technical assistance, provided by the provincial government of Zamora-Chinchipe in the agronomical aspects of cocoa plantation. Intensive organic native cocoa production is been promoted for upcoming years in this community by the provincial government. However, the future marketing of their produce seems unclear. Their cocoa production is sold as rustic dried cocoa beans to intermediaries who are located in markets away from the community. This community lacks any post-harvesting facility for drying and fermenting cocoa.

The ‘Yawi el Cisne’ Shuar community is not receiving any type of assistance, neither from the government nor from NGOs. Cocoa production is not their main productive activity and their internal disagreements, due to familiar dissimilarities, are eroding their early stages of self-organization for cocoa production. Their modest produce is sold only as dried cocoa beans to intermediaries and as in the previous case, the community has no post-harvest facilities. Their access to markets is further complicated by the lack of transport and very poor road infrastructure.

In contrast, the ‘Pumayacu’ Kichwa community shows a high degree of self-organization as they are commercial members of an organic cocoa small producers association (www.kallari.com). This association provides technical assistance to each household which is nevertheless considered insufficient by many of their habitants. Their cocoa production is purchased by the Association only as organic cocoa ‘beans in the pulp’ and this transaction is made in situ. On the other hand, a small amount of produce is sold to intermediaries located in distant markets as home-made dried cocoa beans as there are no post-harvesting facilities in the community. Moreover, charcoal production in their agricultural lands is becoming their main productive activity because of the low income from organic and non-organic cocoa.

The last community, ‘Santa Rita’ (Kichwa ethnic group) shows the highest level of self-organization, boosted by government and NGOs assistance. They are part of the Cocoa route tourism project and provide cocoa to various chocolate brands. The community is a partner and founder of an organic cocoa small producers association (http://www.winak.org.ec/). They sell most of their production as organic cocoa beans in the pulp to a small producers Association and to a private company based in the area (Wiñak and Pacari). These operations are performed in situ, and just a few amounts of rustic dry cocoa beans are sold to intermediaries placed in distant markets. The community is improving a drying and fermentation cocoa facility, financially and technically supported by the Pacari chocolate bar Company (https://home.pacarichocolates.uk/) which is unique among the visited communities. In this case, cocoa production has become a key factor in the creation of a SES.

The socio-economic stability of all communities is highly vulnerable to global impacts due to the volatility of international cocoa prices and high costs and demanding actions to obtain international certifications. Furthermore, in order to increase cocoa productivity, top-down policies are generating uncertainties by not having clear guidelines to improve the post-harvest process that is crucial for the final price of the product whether it is commercialized as premium for the international markets or not.

The SES framework permitted the recognition of two levels of “commons”: the first one, the native “wild” cocoa located in the Amazon forest that has very weak rules of usage as almost anybody, local or not, can have access to it despite it is found in areas that are currently private to one community or the other. In contrast, the genetically enhanced cocoa provided by the government is distributed freely and planted along with any wild trees that the communities may have. The second one, the communal land, was found in three communities, Santa Rita and Pumayacu (Kichwa communities) and Tuntiak (Shuar community) that have clear rules for using the land communally. The lands are considered as ancestral territories therefore, are not subject to private ownership. Only, in Yawi el Cisne (Shuar community) each household have individual property rights on land that they manage autonomously and currently, some inhabitants are selling their lands for the small-scale mining  exploitation.

The falling cocoa market price harms directly the self-organization capacities in the visited communities because they do not have any faculty to influence over the cocoa final price. Based-communities small producers associations are also suffering   by the abrupt variations of cocoa prices because of the dependence on external markets. Internal discordances due to administration mismanagements are further weakening the self-organization.

The greatest barrier that communities are facing is in the stage of cocoa beans transformation because the value of the product decreases exponentially as less transformation processes are made. In addition, low land availability coupled with a steep demographic growth will probably result in a non-adaptive SES based only on cocoa production.

Lastly, no risk management of climatic variability was observed or deduced from the interviews in any of the communities despite that the central government has offices producing climatic alerts and that they are heavily impacted by El Niño and La Niña events.


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