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If you enjoy chocolate you may have no idea just what it takes to get it all the way from bean to bar. I’ve learned quite a bit about cocoa production in Ecuador, and it’s not an easy nor organized path that the raw cacao takes to get all the way to your pretty foil wrapped bar or boxed bonbon in your modern country.
In Ecuador cacao production is highly unorganized, lacks standards regarding quality, grading, and post-harvest practices, and while Ecuador produces most of the world’s highly coveted, high quality “fine aroma” cacao of the Arriba variety, much of this wonderful product is ruined or damaged before it even gets processed.
You often see cacao drying on the side of the road along the highways. It is being contaminated by diesel and gasoline fumes, smoke from cut and burn agriculture, animals, cars, and other factors. You sometimes see several square meters of it, or even hundreds, maybe spread out on a volleyball court just off the road, volleyball being Ecuadorians’ national sport and courts found even in the poorest roadside settlement. Or you may see just a few square feet drying out. As one researcher put it, most cacao in Ecuador is not really cultivated, just gathered by people. Most of the cacao here is produced by families who own less than ten hectares of land; small producers who often gather cacao among the other agricultural products they grow or gather on their plots.
Sometimes, the cacao has been fermented, like it should be before being dried. However, there are no standard procedures that all cacao producers use to ferment. Oftentimes, just due to ignorance, the cacao beans are dried without any fermentation at all. My cacao growing friend here says that one of the main problems with cacao is the post-harvest treatment; there are no standards and no regular procedures. No established standards to treat the cacao, nor any established standards by which to judge its quality.
So sellers are often cheated out of a fair price by buyers who may use unregulated scales, may grade the cacao as poorer than it really is to pay less for it, or grade it dishonestly for some other reasons. The lack of standards among producers, and the lack of any authority to enforce those standards, makes this all possible.