These were among the first words that cocoa farmer Leonor Gomez shared during the two-day National Cocoa Forum that LWR co-hosted in Nicaragua last week. The cocoa forum was a dream that LWR maintained as we expanded our work in cocoa in Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America. Not only was the forum a chance for LWR to launch the cocoa toolkit we developed to help farmers better manage their cocoa plantations, but it was an opportunity to bring together people who represent different links in the cocoa value chain — the people that take cocoa from the farm to the markets and eventually to the chocolate that you and I eat.
A Heart for Cocoa
In addition to the forum, I had a chance to travel with Leonor and a group of cocoa farmers from Haiti, Peru, Honduras and El Salvador to southern Nicaragua where we visited two of the cooperatives that LWR works with. The journey to the cooperatives includes a two hour trip on a small boat down the Rio San Juan to El Castillo, a picture-perfect town with brightly colored houses perched on the banks of the river. In El Castillo we visited COODEPROSA, a cooperative that not long ago won first prize in a national cocoa competition. COODEPROSA was formed only four years ago and currently has 42 members. Despite the cooperative’s small size, cocoa is in the heart of its members, as seen in their determination and commitment to improve the quality of the cocoa they produce.
We Listen to Farmers and We Learn
During the three-day trip, the most rewarding part was listening to cocoa farmers from different countries share advice and lessons learned with each other. I was touched by the sincerity of one farmer in particular who expressed such desire to hear the recommendations and ideas of his fellow farmers for how he could improve his farm. This open and honest dialogue was a reminder of why I value the work that LWR does. We listen to and respond to farmers rather than telling them what to do. We open spaces for them to learn from each other and from technical experts while walking with them during a process of growth and change. We do it with respect and dignity. And we learn along the way too.
Land is Like Another Child
On the last day of the trip, we visited 78-year-old Don Marcos Isabel. He had returned to his land after escaping to Costa Rica during Nicaragua´s civil war in the 1980s, which hit the Rio San Juan region hard. Don Isabel has 13 children, most still living in Costa Rica. During the visit, he engaged in a deep discussion with Leonor, the Honduran farmer who has such passion for cocoa. They both agreed that their land is like another child for them: if you take care of it, it will give back ten times over. If you could have seen Don Isabel’s farm, you would understand how well he and his wife Carmen do care for it. It felt like a paradise, full of bright flowers and fruit trees mixed in with cocoa trees. This diversity is not just beautiful, it represents the agro-forestry model that LWR promotes with cocoa production. This model allows farmers to care for their lands while still earning income from cocoa. The next time I eat a piece of chocolate, I will think of Don Isabel and Leonor and the passion and dedication they put into the cocoa they grow.