The island of Ometepe is the largest island sitting on a sweet water lake in Central America. Its remote location south of Nicaragua, connected to the mainland by rustic ferries, gave the island’s lush forests a bit of protection from the massive expansion of cattle ranching and banana plantations that devastated most of Nicaragua`s forests.
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Now Ometepe is the epicenter of an ecological rebirth that is restoring ancient indigenous agroecology practices, especially around the sacred fruit of the Mayans, the cacao. The history of the island dates way back, before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors that built impressive cities like Granada and Leon in mainland Nicaragua, bringing along the destruction of a rich ancient culture. The evidence left of petroglyphs found across the island, show that a rich culture prospered here between their two sacred volcanoes around 300 BC. Among their rituals, there are references to what the Mayans considered the heart opening sacred fruit of cacao, used not only as a regular part of the diet, but also in special rituals and as a local currency.
We had the opportunity to have a full class of a tree to bar cacao operation, on a chocolate tour with Justin, who runs the cacao operation at Pital, one of new initiatives promoting the rebirth of the cacao agroforestry production. Pital sells their delicious agroforestry organic chocolate at their own coffee shop and restaurant, and promotes educational tours around the local production of cacao, and the difference between the real chocolate they produce locally and the milk and sugar industrialized junk we call chocolate in most parts of the world.
We walked with Justin the key parts of his operation, from the agroforestry cacao plantation, that promotes the use of local species, and involves already two other family runned farms. He explains the delicate art of nurturing the cacao trees that have to be visited almost on a daily basis with all its fruits picked by hand when they reach the right ripeness. They are now increasing their production by regenerating a degraded cattle field on the slopes of vulcan Madera. He then takes us through the complexity of the natural fermentation process and sun drying the beans, all the way to the roaster and the chocolate making, giving every bar a distinct flavor that makes the business of chocolate, as also is the case of coffee, closer to the nature of wine making.
As Ometepe develops to become the next cool eco-tourism destination of central america, it’s a light of hope to see local farmers getting out of the poverty trap of conventional cattle and banana monoculture to work with the two most promising tree crops of central america driving the regenerative agriculture shift, cacao and coffee. What both have in common is the already happening growth of the specialty segment that is pushing the consumers to look at chocolate and coffee beyond industrialized branded products, to a whole range of flavors and categories only possible when we connect the story of the farmers who plant these magical trees to the consumers who are tasting the complex natural products.
When we look at the nutrition side of the story of chocolate, the difference between what you get in a chocolate bar coming straight from an operation like Pital, and the usual supermarket Industrial version is remarkable. On one hand you have a natural product full of antioxidant properties and nutrients that are linked to good cardiovascular health, and on the other hand a multi billion food scam of using an industrial process to separate the cocoa powder from the butter, substitute the second for cheap palm oil causing deforestation on the other side of the globe, and adding to that dairy and refined sugar, neutralizing most of the good antioxidant properties of the cacao fruit and creating an addictive sensory bomb linked to obesity and diabetes, that we all refer to as a guilty pleasure. Sadly we use the word chocolate, which comes from the ancient Aztec Xocolatl, used to refer to their sacred cacao based beverage, to name the two modern versions of it without making a clear distinction.
As consumers across the globe we can support the tree to bar movement, that values the work of the millions of farmers growing cacao around the world, by banning from our diets all branded industrial chocolate and adding a good dose of real chocolate, free of dairy, refined sugar, palm oil, chemical preservers and money making cheap addictive junk that the industry has us high on since childhood. Yes, a tree to bar chocolate is more expensive, but the whole idea that a delicate fruit that grows on a sacred tree, in a tropical forest on the other side of the world, should be a cheap treat we stuff ourselves daily at the nearest convenience store, is one of the many insane ideas we inherited from the industrial revolution that has no space in a new regenerative economy.