Interview with Maria del Pilar Castillo:
Maria del Pilar Castillo is from a cacao farming family, and studied engineering and renewable natural resources at the University. She has a specialization in agroforestry . In 2009-2010 she was the coordinator for Acopagro; she would go around to the various cacao farms to interact with the different members of the cooperative (2,000 cacao farming families).
Maria received her degree from la Universidad Nacional Agraria De la Selva in Huanuco. She designed botanic gardens after graduation. She currently works for the Foundation Amazonia Viva (Reforestation and conservation projects developed in the region with acopagro cacao farmers), in the technical department (technical support, coordinating, etc). Currently she promotes the diversification of activities / revenues for the cacao farmers (so that they are not just depending on cacao, financially). She also organizes the Comite de Damas to promote women empowerment (cacao’s farmers wives and daughters, learning how to process cacao beans to market final products); and supports the women in creating their unique Chocolate products.
“The women know how to grow cacao, plant the trees and are decision makers. The women have more knowledge now than the men. And the women still have much, much more work: being a mother, a wife, in the kitchen, in the field and now part of the committees. That’s why women empowerment and recognition of their work are a priority.” –Maria
What magical properties does cacao have?
Chocolate is an aphrodisiac, a symbol of love.
Does it make a difference if the plants are in shade versus full sun? Does it change the taste at all?
The cacao is not a plant from the eliofita family. It needs at least 30% shade. The fruit is very sensitive to the sun. The top of the branch burns in the sun and prevents the fruit from growing out of the branch. The cacao trees go well with “leguminoseae” . It has to do with the roots. The roots have nodules, with bacteria that captures & releases nitrogen, and the cacao can absorb it. The leaves of the tree fall and they are natural fertilizer.
How do you know when the cocoa beans are ready?
Its about the color. The color of the CCN51 (variety) ranges from red to orange. In the begining it is red and becomes orange. It is ready when it is orange.
The native cacao (other variety) goes from green to yellow.
What flavor chocolate would you invent?
Mint is my personal favorite.
As a new flavor, chocolate with Chep-Chep fruit, it would be an explosion of flavors. It is a pulp (exactly like what is around the cacao beans). It has a flavor of melon, mango, watermelon, very smooth explosion of flavors.
Are there local recipes that your family/friends prepare from the plant/pod that we may find interesting (besides a chocolate bar)?
Jam (with the pulp).
Chocoplantana with plantains, Choco maiz with corn, Choco trigo with wheat, and also choco pandisho (a kind of tree). To prepare the ‘choco’, the cacao beans are toasted and transformed in a powder. Then we add the same proportion of corn meal or flour or plantain powder. Then add hot water to drink it as a hot beverage.
We can also make a meal of the seeds (beans), dry roasted seeds (with honey).
Chocolate mouse, of course.
Tea by infusing the shell the cacao beans.
When you work hard and taste the fruits of your own labor, it just tastes so much better, doesn’t it?
It’s good that Alter Eco brings to life the everyday hard work of our farmers. Behind the bean there is a farmer, a human being and an economy of an entire region. Alter Eco makes the link, creating a full circle.
And the bars taste very good! The feeling in your mouth is fruit and a combination of different flavors. You can taste the acidity and bitterness that we (the cacao farmers) are familiar with. Every time we try a new chocolate bar, we are looking for the tastes we are so familiar with, especially the cacao flavor
What do you find most rewarding about being cacao farmers?
Here, we have pride of growing the best cacao in the world (in San Martin). We got recognition from the Peruvian government that we have the best tasting cacao in the world, with an exotic fruit flavor. The flavor comes from the insects that pollinate the local flowers/plants that give the cacao it’s unique flavor. We are very proud of our delicious, unique cacao.
What do you and the other producers want people to know about the difference Fair Trade makes in your lives?
Fair Trade has improved the quality of our lives by increasing the price. Because of the standards of Fair Trade, our children stopped working in the field and are going to school. And we also started respecting our environment.
The Acopagro cooperative has created many jobs. The cooperative is very careful to make sure everyone is paid fairly.
Also the quality of our life has improved because of the premium we receive (finances medical costs: dental, infections, etc ). Also families now have chickens, so they can have eggs. We now also have infrastructure (i.e office for the coop).
Part of the profit of the coop is sent to the farmers twice a year (before March, so they can pay for school supplies & uniforms. Then in December to buygifts for Christmas).
What collaborative efforts are in the works, and by whom, to combat large corporations from undermining what you do; fair trade versus what the people want?
We don’t have any large corporation fighting against us. In this region (where there is a lot of conventional cacao), more farmers are transitioning to organic. If a farmer wants to become organic, there is a lot of certifiers that come to the region and can help them get certified. There is a lot of training for farmers too. The organic & FT certifications can easily be done together.