Whole Foods Market Volunteers at ACOPAGRO

Our latest visit to our cacao cooperative in Peru was a bit different than those past. This time we were not only there to visit our cacao producing farmer friends, talk about their annual harvest and community and development programs, we were also there to introduce 11 volunteers from Whole Foods Market, ready to get their hands, feet and elbows dirty in the fields. They would be working side-by-side with the cacao producers for 5 days in the remote villages of Santa Rosa and Pucallpillo, at the edge of the Peruvian Amazon along the Alto Huayabamba River.


Every year Whole Foods Market, in partnership with their microlending organization, Whole Planet Foundation, organizes volunteer programs in which its Team Members can apply to participate. Whole Foods Market wants to give their employees the opportunity to visit and learn about Whole Planet Foundation's microlending partners in Asia, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East, as well as visit the sources of some of the products carried in their stores.


This is how we came to have the pleasure of hosting 11 volunteers with our partners and extended family in Peru. Alter Eco chocolates have been widely available and supported by Whole Foods Market for the past 8 years. The cacao used in our ‘lighter’ dark chocolates is sourced from Peru through the ACOPAGRO Cacao Cooperative, which is where we journeyed to introduce this group of WFM Team Members to the Alter Eco fair trade and organic chocolate supply chain.



The volunteer group included team members from cities all over North America: New York, Denver, Austin, Philadelphia and Vancouver, to name a few. When they first stepped out of the tiny Tarapoto airport, we could immediately see that this was going to be an awesome and passionate group. 


Our first stop was Juanjuí, a small town at the base of the Alto Huayabamba River. Here the group met with the management team at ACOPAGRO, toured the warehouse and learned about the bean fermentation, drying and quality assurance process.


We then introduced the group to Pur Projet, also with an office in Juanjuí. Pur Projet is the carbon insetting organization through which Alter Eco has planted thousands of trees, offsetting 100% of its carbon emissions. These trees are planted in the fields of the Alter Eco cacao producers. More on Alter Eco’s reforestation work with Pur Projet here.


The following morning we were up at sunrise again, this time to load into small boats for our 3-hour journey up the Huayabamba River. From the boat you can immediately begin to see the patterns of life along the river. From solitary fisherman balancing on narrow hand-carved wood canoes waiting for their catch, to fully clothed families bathing in the shallow waters along the banks, to the destruction of deforestation visible in the eroded hillsides along the river. Life along the river seems beautifully bittersweet.


We arrived in the small village of Santa Rosa just in time to help prepare lunch with our dear friends Charito Paima Mendoza and her husband Oswaldo del Castillo. Oswaldo Sr. was one of the leading influencers to organize the cacao producers into the fair trade cooperative of ACOPAGRO. With only about 10 households in the village, Charito and Oswaldo’s house is one of the main centers in the community.


After lunch, we all hiked through the forest behind the village to a clearing on the top of the hill where the community built a Maloca surrounded by a medicinal garden. Here they cultivate indigenous medicinal plants, trees and herbs such as Uña de Gato (cat’s claw), Sangre de Grado (dragon’s blood) and Oje (ficus). The view from the maloca is breathtaking.



Sticky from sunscreen, mosquito repellent and sweat from the afternoon hike we all grabbed our swimsuits and Dr. Bronners organic soaps and headed to the river for a customary pre-dinner bathing with the family. 


After dinner the entire village came to welcome us and proudly explained their role in the cacao association. After each socio and volunteer introduced themselves in some fluent and some broken Spanish, Oswaldo Sr. turned off the lights and turned on the boom box. Using our headlamps as strobe lights we all danced to some local jams.


After a beautiful day trip up the river to the Alto Huayabamba’s most magical waterfall, El Breo, the volunteers were energized and ready for the laboring work ahead of them.  The group was split in two; 5 Team Members staying in the village of Pucallpillo and 6 Team Members staying in Santa Rosa.  




Each group participated in the normal daily work of the farmers.  They helped them to pick the cacao fruit from the tree, cut open the fruit with machetes and remove the pulp-covered beans collecting them in large plastic tubs. Once the cacao was harvested and the tubs were full, the pulpy beans were brought to the fermenting modules, to begin their 5-day fermenting process.


Another job was to spread out the fermented beans on cement slabs to be dried by the strong tropical sun.  The beans need to dry for several days, depending on rain and humidity, and raked periodically. Sudden downpours would send the farmers and volunteers running to the drying slabs to cover the exposed beans with tarps. The farmers seem to instinctually know which clouds mean business and which will produce nothing but a light sprinkle.


The volunteers also planted trees that Whole Foods Market purchased for the volunteers to plant through Pur Projet. In preparation of plantation, the land needed to be cleared, small holes dug and seedlings prepared.  The Santa Rosa group was able to plant 170 trees in one day and the Pucallpillo group, slowed by torrential rain on their planting day, planted 80 (but there was no contest). Both groups planted native Shihuahuaco, Capirona and Estoraque trees within and around the cacao groves.



On two evenings after long days of physical labor in the heat and humidity, the two groups came together with the villages for a friendly (competitive) match of fútbol; Santa Rosa vs. Pucallpillo. The farmers were surprised at the soccer skills of many of the volunteers, especially the women. Some even taught Oswaldo and Charito some yoga poses. 


Unfortunately, the Team Members had to return to Tarapoto a day earlier than planned due to a road closure in Juanjuí, so their last day of work was canceled. They were scheduled to help Pucallpillo build their first enclosed community shower in the center of the village. Most people in the village bathe in the small river outlet below the community center, but a private community shower would be a welcome addition. We’ll work on this project next time.


The farewells in Santa Rosa and Pucallpillo were with heavy hearts as new bonds and friendships had been born in those 6 days working and living together. Emails and Facebook info were exchanged over hugs and expressions of gratitude. My first visit to these villages left a lasting impression on my heart and I know it will for these 11 Whole Foods Team Member Volunteers as well.


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