Each trip on the Alto Huayabamba River offers a different view of the vast, lush landscape and its illuminating sky, whether it be shrouded in fog with the sun peeking through, or clear and bright with cotton candy clouds, or dumping rain. It is the living highway of the San Martin region giving glimpses of life all around it; from children riding to school, a man fishing in an inner tube, or a small wooden boat weighed down with mattresses and bushels of plantains. Plus, it’s the same ‘highway’ that 25,000 pounds of Alter Eco cacao beans travel down before being shipped to Switzerland to be crafted into the chocolate you all know and love.
In June 2015, Alter Eco once again partnered with the Whole Planet Foundation to take a group of 12 Whole Foods Market Team Members to volunteer with our cacao and reforestation partners in Peru. Together, a group of strangers traveling by plane, car, and boat, arriving in such a beautiful place with vibrant people, so far removed from our day-to-day lives, makes for an unforgettable time. The experiences we shared over the course of the week not only strengthened the connections with each other, but also with the farmers, and the land. One of the first things I noticed when I stepped foot in Pucallpillo was how full of life it is, from the damp fertile earth to the people who call it home. Because of the relationships Alter Eco has cultivated over the years with these communities we were all welcomed like long lost relatives. It was almost a sensory overload with so many things to see, learn, and take in. It was easy to become overwhelmed by the beauty of a shockingly pink jungle flower or slightly terrified by the long rectangular torso of a jungle spider. The reverence everyone gave to the land and each other was something not commonly seen in a place like San Francisco, because the livelihoods of these communities depends on the land, so they know how to use and respect it.
Each day was a whirlwind of new activity, learning everything we could about cacao beans, native and medicinal plants, reforestation and conservation work, and the dramatic history of the region’s long-gone coca (cocaine) plantations. We clipped and collected large red-orange cacao pods from the trees, and spotted the sneaky pods hiding in the foliage (with the help of local eyes, of course). As we all sat around scooping the pulpy white cacao beans from the pods with our fingers, we learned about the farmers’ strategy of planting native coaba trees within their cacao fields to give the crop shade and increased nutrients in the soil. Our visit to the botanical garden was nothing short of magical, with panoramic views of the river, valley and cacao fields as far as the eye could see.
During our stay we also helped the community of Santa Rosa to restore their cacao fermentation modules and drying slabs. We mixed a LOT of cement. I never would have thought that mixing cement would be such a big part of chocolate production, but the drying areas are at the center of the communities. Almost everyone living in these villages works with cacao. It’s their main source of income, so beans are constantly being harvested, fermented, dried and then sold to the cooperative. We (with lots of assistance) mixed cement to level out the concrete drying area and created a small barrier to prevent flooding during heavy downpours. We also built a concrete holding area for beans fresh from the harvest. As the beans ferment, the white acidic pulp that surrounds the fresh cacao bean liquifies and damages the wooden fermentation boxes. Placing the beans in a cement holding area for the first couple of days allows the liquid to drain before entering the wooden boxes.
As prepared as we thought we were, nothing could have prepared us for the sense of connection we felt on this trip; a connection with the Whole Foods Team Member Volunteers, the farmers and their families. From day one, we were exchanging stories about our hometowns and families; we were cooking, working and dancing together. (Yes, in the evenings, the dining room would become a space for impromptu dance parties, the beats of electro music slicing through the trees of the jungle.) Not only did we learn a lot about cacao, we learned so much about the people there who gladly let us shadow them for a week and be part of the community. Being able to see firsthand the connection between the land, the people and how that relationship is the foundation of how we can make such quality products was nothing short of transformative. Now when I see cement truck rumbling down the street I think about mixing it by hand and when I take a bite of Coconut Toffee I am instantly transported back up the Alto Huyabamaba River with all the friends that were made there, and where I hope to return soon.