The following photo essay was written by Dary Goodrich, Chocolate Products Manager. It first appeared in the April/May issue of What’s Brewing.
In September 2008, Equal Exchange launched our first single origin chocolate bar, using cacao beans from Panama. We have received nothing but superb feedback on this new bar, the Organic Panama Extra Dark (80% cacao content), which people are describing as rich, robust, well-balanced, chocolatey, fudge-like and more.
We are excited to have not only a new bar, but more importantly, a new producer partner – the COCABO co-operative in Panama. This winter, I was able to visit COCABO (the Multi-service Cacao Co-operative of Bocatoreña) in Bocas del Toro, Panama, with our Canadian friends and partners, La Siembra. The purpose of our trip was to continue to build the relationship between Equal Exchange and COCABO, learn more about the farmer co-operative, and finally to better understand all of the hard work they carry out to produce the wonderful cacao that goes into making this bar such a hit. Here’s a brief photo journal of some of the sights and people that made this such a wonderful experience.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra)
COCABO’s office is located on mainland Panama in the city of Almirante, however the easiest way to get there is to fly into the archipelago of Bocas del Toro. From there it is a quick boat road to Almirante. From our plane, we had a view of the Carribean Sea, as pictured here.
Founded in 1952, COCABO is the oldest co-operative in Panama. It was founded by farmers working to bypass middlemen and trade directly with buyers. Though it has focused mainly on cacao production, they have also opened five hardware stores and a saw mill.
The first day in Almirante, we visited the main office for a day of meetings. The office building is broken into three sections. On the right, farmers bring in their beans to sell to the co-op; in the middle behind the truck is a hardware store; and on the left is the administrative office, which oversees the day-to-day management of the 1,600-member co-operative.
While at COCABO, we were able to spend time learning about the history of the co-op, its organizational structure, the quality and organic systems, farmer and environmental projects, the impact of Fair Trade on the co-op, the challenges they face, and much more. The photo above, from our first day at COCABO, is of Andres Frezac (left) of COCABO’s Vigilance Committee, David Casasola who manages COCABO’s organic program (middle), and Martin Van Den Borre of La Siembra (right).
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) While at the office, several farmers were bringing in their beans. They arrive in sacks that are usually around 150 lbs. each. In this picture, the beans are being dumped into a large sieve to remove debris.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) The co-op checks the quality of each farmer’s beans by cutting open beans from each bag brought in. When checking the quality, they examine the level of fermentation, how dry the beans are, as well as the number of deformities or diseased beans. Once it is determined that the beans meet COCABO’s quality standards, the beans are weighed and the farmer is paid.
We wanted to learn about the harvesting and processing before the beans arrive at the office, so we headed out the community of Valle Junquito. We were warmly greeted by many in the community.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) Before trekking out to the farms, they showed us a recently built fermentation tank. These tanks are used to ferment the cacao beans for 5-7 days, which is crucial to the flavor development of the beans.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) After the beans are fermented, they are sun dried for several days. Pictured is a new sun drier that keeps the beans off the ground, and more importantly, it keeps the rain from destroying the beans while they are drying. COCABO has been working to build many new fermentation boxes and driers throughout member communities.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) After seeing the post-harvest process, we were off to the farms. It was a truly beautiful spot we visited – green, lush and diverse. After a five minute walk from the community, we were surrounded by cacao trees.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) The first farm we visited belonged to Daniel Santo, who spoke about the struggle to survive before he joined the co-op and how being a member has made a difference in his life. He also spoke of the importance of having plant diversity on his farm – for both shade and food.
Beautiful cacao! Here is a pod growing off the trunk of the tree named Theobroma Cacao.
During the harvesting process, the ripe pods are artfully removed from the tree and placed in piles to later be opened.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) Pedro Abrego demonstrates how to open and remove the beans. The beans, covered in a white pulp in the photo, are fermented and dried in the community, then later roasted and ground to be made into the chocolate we all love. The empty pods are piled on the farm to become natural fertilizer for future cacao harvests.
On the farms we visited, diversification is essential. In this photo we are digging up yampi, which is a tuber used for cooking (in fact, we had some for lunch at one of the farmer’s homes). Other fruits and vegetables grown on the farms are bananas, citrus fruits, pineapples, tarot and more.
(Photo Courtesy of La Siembra) I want to send a big thanks to our friends at COCABO for their wonderful hospitality. They taught me a lot and we look forward to a fruitful partnership. (That’s me second-from-the-left., with members of COCABO)