The Heart & Soul: Our Farmers
Where Do We Source Our Cacao?
Based in Boulder, Colorado and established in 2013, Shanao Cacao has its roots in an isolated valley on the Rio Mayo in northeastern Peru, near the town of Shanao.
Shanao and its adjacent farms are surrounded by the rare Alto Mayo Cloud Forest and Cordillera Escalera Regional Conservation Area of upper Amazonia. In 2013, we purchased a cacao farm with Jen's brother, Gordon South, above the town of Shanao. Gordon and Michael began working with farmers and quickly noticed they were not paid fairly for their prized Criollo beans, nor did they have any incentive for quality control. In 2014-15, they formed a cooperative with the local cacao farmers with the goal of retaining wealth within the community and raising the quality of cacao. Together they revised and standardized on-site fermentation and processing during 2016-17, and our first pilot project of four tons of single origin cacao arrived in the U.S. in November 2017. In 2019, Moksha Chocolate was born.
Through our “Regenerative-Trade," part of the profit from the sales of Moksha chocolate is re-invested through Shanao Cacao into the community and divided between the farmers and the cooperative. By working with the community, the proceeds enhance the lives of local farmers and community members. This is our basis of sustainable competitive advantage. The farmers are not mere producers, and we are not just their customers. We are a member of the communities we represent and they share in the benefit of the returns that our process can generate. The level of our impact is dictated by our ability to purchase volume and the regenerative trade model adheres our farmers to our system.
Fair Trade sounds good, but isn't enough to live. We realized that we could pay our farmers directly without paying any more money for our cacao. We pay the real price of a cacao bean on the market. That’s the same price others pay to a middle man. One reason we pay our farmers more is so our farmers can make the finest chocolate around. It’s also just the right thing to do. And by reinvesting an extra portion of our sales into the Shanao Cacao Collective, we’re showing everyone that we’re serious about crafting the best chocolate ever.
Custudio comes from a third generation local Quecha family. The farmers are descendants of the remains of the Inca tribes who speak their own distinct variety of the Quechua family of languages. Where the coca plant and drug mafia once ruled, this area in Peru has introduced sustainable cocoa farming. The former drug farmers have now become experts on organic cacao farming and processing. The farmers, like Custodio, have survived both the war on Drugs, and the civil war for decades.
These humble people were often caught between the military and rebel groups, forced to aid both sides. Where the coca plant and influence of drug drug cartels once ruled the local economy, this area in Peru has introduced sustainable cocoa farming as a central way of advancing equity.
His farm is situated on the North East protruding ridge of the hills surrounding the town of Shanao. He lives in a simple house that he built by hand with his seven family members. The family cultivates native fruits and vegetables (papaya, yuca, corn, mango, coconuts, oranges, and beans) along with chickens and eggs that they sell to the market. But their main source of income is cacao.
Custudio manages the Moksha cacao farm while we are in Boulder, Colorado, by harvesting the cacao, clearing the jungle, and pruning the trees. He is indispensable, essentially keeping the jungle from stealing back our growing areas. He’s also an indispensable member of APARMASH, our local fermentation co-operative. Custudio’s dog, Feruco, is a constant fixture in our camp when we’re in town and is a great companion that is at our sides night and day. It’s nice to know he’s around if anything untoward was to emerge from the trees. Custudio laughs deeply when remembering the time Michael was stung repetitively by paper wasps when trekking through our more wild areas. Apparently, you are supposed to remain still while being savaged by stinging insects.
Michael laughs, "I remember Custudio calling me, Coco Loco and Gordon, Gringo Loco!"
Custudio's son, Segundo, is the first generation of this family to obtain a post-secondary education. When Segundo was six years old, he went to school in an adjacent town called Lamas. Most weeks, he would stay with his aunt during the weekdays and walk back home to help his parents farm on the weekends. Later, he went on to complete high school in the nearby town of Tarapoto.When we met Segundo, he wanted to be a police officer, which is a nearly impossible dream for poor families. (There are few indigenous law officers in the region.) In 2018, through a Go Fund Me campaign, we were able to raise $2000 USD for a policy academy and now Segundo is a proud police officer, bringing respect and legitimacy to his community and his family.
Custudio and his wife Maria are dignified cacao farmers. They subsist almost entirely off their land. Recently, when Custudio was working outside, he broke his leg and we were happy to help him with financial aid while he needed to heal and rest. His story illustrates the impact of working as a cooperative, where every member shares a mutually beneficial relationship, and cares for each others wellbeing. We are grateful to have Custudio as a friend and co-op member.
He is truly the heart and soul of Moksha.