The only way to reach the factory is by boat. At the wooden pier, a smiling employee awaits visitors for a first try of Filha do Combu’s products.

On first impression it is clear that you are tasting something different. The chocolate has a strong, complex flavor that’s slightly bitter and earthy, authentic, and somehow airy. The intense scent of chocolate fills the factory as cocoa beans are manually ground in front of visitors.

Every element of Filha do Combu chocolate is the embodiment of a product that’s closely connected to the forest.

A cocoa seed and its fruit on display. Photo by Sarita Reed.
A cocoa seed and its fruit on display. Photo by Sarita Reed.

“We work with 70 percent to 100 percent cocoa chocolate, made of native cocoa and completely organic,” Costa said. Her factory employs traditional methods of cropping, drying the seeds and manual grinding.

After the chocolate tasting, Costa — or her daughter, Patrícia Costa, who also works in the factory — shows visitors how their products are made. Several facilities are spread across the 34-acre property, including the sheds where pods are stored and beans are dried. Throughout the tour the hosts reaffirm how important forest conservation is to their business model. Visits typically end with one final chocolate tasting session before workers go back into the factory to continue production.

Though they are committed to working in harmony with the forest, Filha do Combu owners and workers don’t scorn modernized methods. They say changes brought about by the shift toward industrialization of cocoa have been welcome. Costa and her family used to live off collecting cocoa pods, drying the seeds and selling them to middlemen, who would resell them to big companies. The price the product fetched was too low, though.

Now that they have a factory, they have complete control over the production chain, from harvesting to processing. That means greater profit.

“Before, we used to sell one kilo (2.2lb) of cocoa beans for about five reais ($1.35). Nowadays, we sell one kilo of our chocolate for 150 reais ($40)”, Costa said. The small enterprise employs seven full-time workers that includes local residents and family members and a university student who helps show visitors around the property.

Brazil’s cocoa production chain

Initiatives like Filha do Combu are still not the norm in Brazil. Most of the country’s cocoa sector is based on an agribusiness model, in which smallholder farmers or low-income workers — sometimes under similar to slavery working conditions — plant and harvest the fruit, selling it to companies that produce cocoa-derived products.

According to the National Association of Cocoa Processors (AIPC), only four companies process 90 percent of the country’s cocoa, with three of them being transnational (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargill, Barry Callebaut) and one Brazilian (Indeca).

For Francisco Mendes Costa, an expert on cocoa production and co-author of the book “Cocoa, Wealth of the Poor,” there is only one way to surpass this model.

“Small producers themselves starting to produce chocolate instead of just selling the beans,” he said, in an interview with Mongabay. “This is a solution that is already being sought. Local residents are now running after ways to industrialize their product.”

According to the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply (Mapa), cocoa products had a turnover increase of eight percent this year in Brazil. Although experts point to a rise in the number of tree-to-bar small producers as well, data about this specific kind of production is still scarce. Existing data usually mixes up tree-to-bar producers with bean-to-bar ones — those who buy cocoa beans to produce their own chocolate.

The rise of local chocolate production is good not only for communities’ economy, but also for the environment. Francisco explains that cocoa farming, when well managed, helps to preserve the original vegetation and biodiversity.

“Cocoa grows under the shades of the trees, so there is a symbiosis between plantation and forest,” he said.

Pesticides are also not necessary for the plantation in Filha do Combu’s case, since cocoa is native to the region.

“We use sustainable techniques to have better lighting over the cocoa trees, but there is no need to control plagues as there is a natural balance,” said owner Izete Costa.

A big challenge for tree-to-bar producers is how to keep their business running. Francisco explained that the lack of associationism among producers undermines their chances of achieving success and competing with big companies.

“Small associations are often created, but they usually don’t last for long. The habit of negotiating through cooperatives is not consolidated,” he said.

Lack of investment

Despite its success story, Filha do Combu has received little support from government authorities. They still struggle with logistics issues, as well as lack of machinery and basic services. They say things could be different for them if they had that support.

“The authorities don’t provide a boat to collect the island’s garbage, for instance, so we have to take it by ourselves to the city,” Costa’s daughter Patrícia said.

Change could be on the horizon, though. At the end of August, a new federal bill which supports producers of high-quality cocoa was approved. It aims to give credit to facilities and small producers and to promote better agroforestry practices.

According to Mário Carvalho, Filha do Combu’s manager, it remains unclear which new policies will be developed based on the bill.

“It is very broad and defines only a few things. It seems to be focused on more structured business, so we will have to look for partners to get the credit facilities they propose,” he said.

For Francisco, the public sector is a key player in the transformation of the cocoa sector. “If a government is able to support and subsidize small chocolate producers, then the chocolate market landscape in Brazil will be utterly changed,” he claimed.

Banner image: A cocoa seed and its fruit on display. Photo by Sarita Reed.

Article published by Genevieve Belmaker
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