Changing chocolate for good

The road to Pando (part 2): lessons from Volker

Nick Johns-WickbergComment

Chocolutionary Ruairidh Wilkinson is on the road to Pando, Bolivia, on a quest to make top quality chocolate from wild, never-before-used cacao. With his help, Chocolution hopes to bring this unique flavour to you in the near future. His journey took a pleasant twist when he was invited to stay with Volker Lehmann, a cacao expert based among the chocolatals in the Bolivian department of Beni. Here is Ruairidh's account of his time with Volker.

After a few more weeks on the road, travelling the slow, cheap, interesting way across Brazil and eastern Bolivia, I had little organised as far as implementing our Pando cacao project was concerned, and I was heading for Beni, alone and without a plan, feeling a touch disheartened about the whole thing. However, I had not managed to find functional internet in the previous several days, and could not have anticipated the good fortune that my inbox had in store for me. In Ascension de Gaurayos, half way between Santa Cruz and Trinidad, I waited patiently for the internet to do what the internet is supposed to do, and was rewarded with an email that seemed to be too good to be true: Volker Lehmann, the principal pioneer of Beni's wild growing cacao, a fine flavour variety now known as Beniano, was inviting me to his ranch, Hacienda Tranquilidad, between Haucaraje and Baures, the very next day. The timing could not have been more perfect. In fact if I had not already made half the journey already, I might not have been able to make it at all.

We arranged to meet early the next morning at my hostel, and were soon on the way to the airport along with his two daughters and one of his most trusted employees, Juan-Carlos. As three men pushed the six-seater plane into position, our bodies and bags were weighed. The plane carries no more than half a ton. Pretty soon we were wobbling into the skies and away from the small city of Trinidad and off across the savannah, criss-crossed at first with cattle-tracks that wind across the plane like muddy flashes of lightning, which became more scarce as the journey continued over remote places where the occasional sight of a ranch seemed anomalous. Rivers wound around curious textures of swampiness, interspersed with patches of forest, slightly raised above the plain, due to geological variations which have prevented their soils from being washed away over the millennia.

This is the southernmost limit of the Amazon basin – the edge of its catchment area. Amongst these forest islands are the 'chocolatals', where a high proportion of the trees are Theobroma Cacao, about which I was getting so excited. It was beyond doubt my most incredible aviation experience yet. Volker's 1965 Dodge U.S. military truck soon came to pick us up with Hernan behind the wheel, and after gathering supplies in Haucaraje, we rolled off down the dirt tracks to Hacienda Tranquilidad, which is well deserving of its name; it contains 600 hectares of forest and wetland, about 200 hectares of which is chocolatal.

By this point, many of my longstanding questions about cacao had already been answered, and there was so much yet to learn. I had already learned, for example, that cacao fermentation was scarcely practised in the industrial production of chocolate until the 1950s, and that it was not a standard practice in the making of fine-flavour chocolate, for enhancing desirable and neutralising unpleasant flavours, until the onset of the 21st century. Until then, the beans were put straight to dry, as they still are for beans used in junky industrial choc, which relies on alkalising and the heat of the conching process to neutralise the general unpleasantness of the product. I had also learned, while discussing our project, that the cacao of Pando is not substantially different, is indeed genetically homogenous with the Beniano.

Volker is convinced that there is very little variation throughout the region, and he of all people should know, because he or some member of his team has been up every river and sought cacao in every forest around. He is also quite certain that the Brazil-nut harvesting population of Pando, who we are hoping might be interested in extra work, are indifferent to cacao, because Brazil-nuts pay better, and since the cacao and the nut harvests coincide, they are busy enough already. This was all clashing unnervingly with pre-existing ideas of mine, as would so many things I have heard since, which is how reality bites, steadily and forcefully through the misconceptions. It may also be the case that some producers are already harvesting Pando cacao for chocolate, marketed under Beni's better known name.

Along the river Beni, which marks the boundary of the provinces of Beni and Pando, for example, Peter Hecker has been working with the cacao for some years. All this, I was thinking, is what I might have come all this way to learn. However, I have since reasoned, this may not ultimately detract from the objectives of our project, which is to create a product which links Kew's visitor and marketing services to its research projects, to secure additional legal protection for the forest, as well as boosting the local economy in Pando.

Another important piece of advice was that there is no use going by what people tell you. You will only muddle out the truth from the crap by your own observation and experimentation, which might be a crucial thing to remember in all this, even when it comes to advice offered from such a reliable source. It would be difficult to overestimate Volker's experience and knowledge when it comes to wild growing cacao, though. Perhaps no-one else has explored, experimented, succeeded, faltered, learned and persevered like he has. He has also been involved in every phase of the process, from exploration through production and marketing, as well as working in so wide a variety of roles with involved NGOs that I can scarcely fathom it. So it has been my great privilege to have received so much information and instruction from him in the past two and a half days. I could not be learning from a higher authority on the subject.

It is not only that Volker has the greatest experience in working with Beni's wild growing cacao. He practically initiated the industry (which previously worked only on the scale of local consumption of poorly produced cacao for use in traditional drinks), and designed the processing protocols for fermentation and drying which are now used, with varying degrees of quality control, throughout the region and beyond. In short, the wild cacao of Beni would be unknown without him. His presence has had a distinct influence on the whole area, and made Baures into the Bolivian capital for 'cacao silvestre', or wild growing cacao. He even coined the name 'Beniano', which is a distinct addition to the nine varieties of cacao defined by Moto Mayor, which he subsequently revised in 2007.

The history of the chocolatals really took off with the Jesuits though, during the 17th Century. They would have prepared cacao for export and sent it downriver towards Brazil, and tended and expanded the chocolatals in their usual industrious style, until they were abolished and exterminated by Spanish forces after the historic Papal bull which brought an end to the order. They left behind the thriving chocolatals, as well as the local tradition of enjoying chocolate drinks.

There is not currently any cacao processing going on at Tranquilidad. They processed a first flush of beans over a week ago, and will not start again until after Monday. Nonetheless, in the chocolatal I have been meeting harvesters who will take what they gather to sell to other buyers. This does not bother Volker. He owns the land and perhaps the trees, but the cacao itself, once harvested, belongs to the harvesters and they can sell it as they please, and will happily sell it to him when they can, but that will not be until after Monday. He won't lose out much anyway.

Much more is lost to the monkeys and the woodpeckers – which peck a hole in the pod so that they can return for the insects that will infest it. This, he tells me, is the only way the system can work. He has tried other, more controlled harvesting arrangements and pay structures, which all proved too easy to fiddle. The harvesters will best provide their services on the terms that suit them best, and if you try to take too much control, you will end up in a struggle, and will only lose out in the end. He has tried paying above the going rate for the cacao, but only found that not only do the yields decrease, because people here usually value leisure over wealth and will aim only to earn the same amount of money as they did at a lower rate of pay, but that the quality also goes down, because the harvesters conclude that the buyer must be stupid to pay more than they have to. If he doesn't know the price, he won't know the quality.

These are the kinds of insight which only long experience can glean – practical notes that no intuition or theory could substitute for, on factors the like of which I may have to face myself once I get to Pando. Factors which will challenge my ability to work out what is really going on, in a yet unfamiliar culture, which will no doubt present factors all of its own, which may be quite different from those that I am learning about here in Beni. I have been recognising that even if things go smoothly, the learning curve will probably be treacherously steep. It will challenge my ideals, because there will be so much that is not ideal about the situations I am likely to encounter. There are anarchist inclinations in me which conflict with the smack of colonialism about the way in which the powerful burst of tropical sunshine that is chocolate, follows the money to the global North.

I have observed how ideology often crumbles before the bare face of the way things actually are. Indeed, there is nothing ideological about the insights that may prove most useful. They elucidate the entrenched tendencies of the age-old relationships between the producers and the buyers of products, into which I am stepping, a touch daunted in truth, yet undeterred.

Volker is keen to know how I will get along, I suspect in part for his own amusement. He has seen so many projects involving the cacao silvestre falter half way and never reach fruition. He has seen private investors smoke their assets until the whole enterprise turns belly up, and he has seen the well-meaning work of NGOs evaporate with the indifference of the people who are supposed to take on the projects they initiate. Other projects that might have got everything right all along have been struck down by the fickle whims of nature at the last hurdle. So he is quite confident that no-one else can match his drive and ability to follow through with the hard work and attention to detail that are the prerequisites for success. Still, I am glad that he is curious about how a wandering artist with patchy Spanish will fare as the project moves along, and grateful that I seem to have his blessing for it.

He has been extraordinarily open and giving with information and advice, and he has equipped me with the opportunity to practice everything I came here to learn more about. He has also been an exemplar of respect and just relations with employees and the natural environment. Only once, when I was quizzing him a bit too intently about his ideas for future cacao products that could come out of Tranquilidad, did he refrain from telling me. Nor did he wish to tell me the details of a dream he mentioned having one night. I am ever eager to discuss dreams. But dreams are very different from things that happened in the past, or established practices that have spread far and wide. History is for sharing, but dreams and ideas are personal, secret, and sacred.

Within the next two weeks or so, I am now confident that I will be able to learn the details of the fermentation and harvesting protocols that will be necessary for me to repeat and share the process once I get to Pando.

In one of our last discussions, I asked Volker about the status of wilderness in the world as it is today. Of land which is owned, there is an obligation to be economically productive, which is everything except for the nature reserves, which themselves perform the economic imperatives of maintaining habitat and species diversity for posterity, and for research and tourism. So what is there of wilderness? Of terrain unaltered and unexploited by human activity? Wilderness is surrounded on all sides, like the wildness of lions in the small cages of Victorian zoos. It perseveres on human terms. It is imprisoned. What cannot be exploited, will not be saved.

Human activity has become a principal force of nature. It may well be the case that few ecologies have been unaltered by the most high-impact of terrestrial mammals for the past tens of thousands of years. However, I have read that the wifi signal in some remote parts of the Amazon is so good that it can be used for devices which alert conservation teams to the sounds of loggers, and this is surely a sign that the concept of wilderness has completed a strange flip since the turn of the 21st Century. As a concept, it is anathema to humanity's perceived domination of all worldly environments.

Our discussion went on in such a way, over a glass of fine grape spirits from the south of the country, and this is all very much my own interpretation of it. My attention was split at the time between the conversation and my thoughts about the idea of intervening in the still wild chocolatals of Pando. The trees are wild, or at least feral, and there is no necessary maintenance of the trees. No fertilising, no pruning. Yet there are certain interventions that benefit the fruiting of the trees. They need a minimum of light, and it is helpful to clear shade-blocking foliage. It is also apparent that the most straightforward way to guarantee ideal shade distribution and fruiting conditions is to start with a clear cut, then reintroduce the forest with plenty of cacao, and lots of bananas to start with. In general, it is ever more clear that one can scarcely exploit forest products without interfering with ecology. Nor can the global North acquire chocolate without buying up large portions of tropical sunshine. We'd best make a chocolate that makes it all worth it.