1. From Finance to Farming

Arrival in Ilhéus:
After a long flight from London I arrived in the city Ilhéus in the region of Bahia. Ilhéus was once the epicenter of cocoa production and trade in Brazil and even today, every little detail of the town architecture reminds the ‘Baiano’ style of that time. Almost all historic buildings are decorated with cocoa pod ornaments. In fact, cocoa production has always been at the heart of Bahia. As the writer and scholar Hans Ostrom once noted: ‘Inside cocoa beans lies a secret that survives translations of growth and harvest, roast and grind, concoction and confectionary concatenation.” It all started with the ancient Maya and Aztec who used to prepare a coveted drink out of ground cacao seeds and other seasonings. In some cities cocoa seeds were used as a major currency system due to their high value. The relative buying power of quality beans was such that approximately 100 beans could buy a new cloth mantle. In the 18th century, the first cocoa crops were brought to Bahia from the Amazon forest and the city of Ilhéus rapidly became the center of cocoa trade and production in Brazil. The harvest was mostly exported to chocolate factories in Europe and the USA, giving rise to the reign of the ‘colonels’ in Bahia – wealthy and powerful cocoa farmers, who were vividly depicted in the romantic novels of Jorge Amado. During my visits of Ilhéus I had the chance to see many of the authentic locations of the novels, including the Ilhéus cathedral, the Bataclan restaurant that served as a cabaret in the early 20th century, as well as the town museum, featuring an exhibition about the era of the cocoa tycoons. After this sightseeing trip, my first night was spent at a hotel, before moving into the student house near the Mars Center for Cocoa Science in the next morning.

From Finance to Farming:
The second day starts very early with a presentation of the activities of the Mars Center for Cocoa Science and a brief history of cocoa production in Bahia by the center’s director Jean-Philippe Marelli. I was surprised to learn that the Latin name of cocoa is Theobroma, which can be translated as ‘food for the gods’ – a very powerful and certainly not incorrect metaphor. Shortly after the presentation, I met my translator for the week, Amanda, who only recently joined the center as a communications intern. What followed was my first hands-on work in the cocoa fields. Guided by experienced farmers, I learned how to plant cocoa seeds, how to do grafting, how to mix the optimal blend of soil for more productive cocoa trees and how to take care of young trees in the greenhouse. In the afternoon, we went to see the agroforestry system of cocoa at the nearby farm ‘cinco porcos’. I noticed that the cocoa pods varied greatly in their shape and, interestingly, in colour. For example, the colours of the pods ranged from dark purple to bright yellow and light green. The reason for that is that cocoa can be divided into several groups with different genetic characteristics, such as Amelonado, Criollo and Forastero. The Mars Center has over 600 types of cocoa in its collection, which represents almost 100% of the cocoa diversity in the world. Most cocoa varieties develop pods up to four times a year, which is why harvesting cocoa pods is in fact a continuous process. Equipped with an enormous halberd, I helped the locals to harvest cocoa pods and to separate the nibs from the shell. This is actually quite a complex job, which requires utmost precision, concentration and speed. Back at the Center, I met my new flat mate Lauranne, who was interning at the Center and studying the carbon foot print of cocoa, an academic area, which hasn’t been extensively studied thus far.
A Field Trip to the Past:
Next day, we went on a field trip to ‘PA Brazil’, a settlement for landless people who suffered the consequences of the witches’ broom fungus, which had a devastating effect on Bahia’s economy and social welfare in the 1990s. After a 2-hour drive through the Mata Atlantica forest, we arrived at the settlement. The locals welcomed us with delight and showed us around the village. Most of these people used to be farmers, but the new reality of the cocoa disease forced them to switch to less productive crops or cattle breeding. Some of them were working on the old cocoa ‘fazendas’ of affluent farmers and became unemployed when the rich people abandoned their lands. Some areas have been recovered, but a majority of farms were still abandoned, while the population is living below the poverty line of $1 per day. The farmers I have met were, however, very positive and talkative, despite their extreme situation. Particularly the young generation, who grew up in the cocoa crisis of the 1990s was very curious. They wanted to know everything about me, where I come from, what life is like in Europe and what football clubs I was supporting. I have also met the mayor of the nearest city Barro Preto, who turned out to be quite a cheerful fellow. Together with the MCCS, the city administration jointly invests in the ‘PA Brazil’ settlements. The farmers proudly showcased to us their banana plantations, brought us fresh coco nuts and guavas and invited us to their community house, which was still in construction. On the one hand, it was shocking to witness the extreme poverty, the abandoned houses and the poor infrastructure of the region. But on the other hand, it was reassuring to see that there was still hope and that no stone was left unturned to help the population to escape poverty.

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