Sapecho, a cacao town in the Alto Beni region of Bolivia.

For several years Kerstin’s Chocolates has been working with Edmonton-based charity Change for Children that helps fund projects around the world to improve the lives of children. I became interested in them because of the work they do in countries and communities where cacao is grown. Over the years, we’ve donated money and chocolate to support their projects in South American and African countries. I’ve always wanted to get a first hand look at the work they do and when we had the chance to visit Bolivia, I contacted the president of the organization, Lorraine Swift, to see if she could arrange for us to visit. Lorraine connected us with the folks from Fundacion Renance, a grass-roots organization which helps people in several different regions in Bolivia. They work with women, helping them understand their legal rights and teaching them ways to improve nutrition and farming practices. We met Oscar, the founder, and Odalis, one of his colleagues, the day after we arrived in La Paz and made plans to visit the region of Alto Beni later in the week.

There are only two ways to get to the Alto Beni, flying or driving. Deciding against risking the drive down the infamous “death road”, we took instead a small propeller plane from La Paz to Rurrenabaque in the Amazon jungle (La Paz is one of highest cities in the world at an elevation of 3900m above sea level, and “Rurre” is only 200m above sea level, so it is quite a drop). From there we hired a cab to the town of Sapecho in the Alto Beni region, which is about another 6 hours on very bad roads from Rurre. During our hot, bumpy and dusty drive, we had a chance to talk to Odalis at length about the region, its people and the problems that people are having there.

The Alto Beni is Bolivia’s bread basket, the place where most of the country’s fruit grows, including its cacao. The region has seen a lot of changes in the last 40 years. Originally inhabited by tribes such as the Moseten Indians, many migrants arrived in Alto Beni in the 60’s and 70’s from the Altiplano or the highlands of Bolivia after competition for land and resources began to push them out. The new farmers and the indigenous people were given 40 hectares of land each to farm, which they used to plant crops such as mandarins, cacao and bananas. Many farmers concentrated on one or two of these cash crops. They get relatively low prices for all of these crops, and cacao is much harder to grow and process than either bananas or mandarins.

Oscar (who is from Sapecho) noticed a need to educate the farmers on how to grow a bigger variety of crops so they can better feed their families and not become dependent on one crop should it fail one year. Many farmers would grow veggies and fruits to sell at the market or ship up to La Paz, but they did not consume them themselves. Instead they ate processed foods, fried meats and drank sweet sodas. One of the roles of Fundacion Renace is to provide farmers with vegetable seeds so they can grow crops for their own consumption and improve their families nutrition.

Odalis and Oscar now hold regular workshops to teach women how to make nutritious foods using local ingredients. They teach them how to make juices, fruit breads, jams, yogurts, even sausages and chocolate. When we were there, they were teaching women how to cook with pumpkin, a new food for them. Their goal in the next few years is to establish a breakfast program in the far reaches of Alto Beni where families are the poorest and where kids walk long distances to get to school. They want to hire some of the local women which they’ve taught to prepare nutritious foods, to cook a healthy breakfast for the kids. It struck me that Oscar might be the Jamie Oliver of Bolivia!

In her excellent English, Odalis told me about her plans to help the female cacao growers of the Alto Beni. She wants to create a project where women process their own cocoa beans into cocoa liquor and then invent cacao-containing products to sell in local and foreign markets. She is passionate about improving the livelihood of local women by increasing the value of their cocoa beans. Cyrus and I promised to help her find a good cacao roasting machine and cacao grinder to help her accomplish this goal. She already got word from Change for Children that they will fund the purchase of a grinder. We also discussed the possibility that I would eventually purchase some of this cacao paste to make products of my own. Its extremely exciting to finally realize my dream of helping a cocoa growing community gain independence through their cocoa products. It’s better still to find someone equally passionate as Odalis is to share that dream with me.