The landscape of the Selva Zoque
The deep green mountain ranges of the Selva Zoque in southern Mexico can be considered the birthplace of cacao. Cacao has been grown here for over 4000 years. In fact, the ancient Zoque and their ancestors - the Olmecs - were as brilliant minds as the Greeks of Europe. They were stargazers and kept an advanced calendar. They also invented the sauna and a fortifying drink, sacred to them, made from a forest fruit they called "kakaw."
From the Selva Zoque to the world
This is also the place where cacao, as food for the soul and body, began its journey to the rest of the world, when the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés was offered a sacred aphrodisiac by the Aztec ruler Moctezuma in 1519 - a frothy, bitter, spicy cacao drink enriched with cornmeal. With the first cacao beans crossing the Atlantic, cacao became Mesoamerica's gift to the world.
The Tabasqueño Cacao
The Selva Zoque mountain range is the only place in the world with 4000 years of uninterrupted cacao cultivation and consumption, making it a hotspot for aromatic cacao varieties.
What is fondly called Tabasqueño cacao is a local and wild hybridization of ancient Criollo cacao, which dates back thousands of years and was scattered throughout the wilds of Mesoamerica by spider monkeys and ancient civilizations such as the Olmec, Mokaya and Maya, and an Amazonian Amelonado cacao brought to Tabasco by a French family in the early 20th century. Here, in the rainforest-covered Selva Zoque, wild crossbreeding has been taking place for more than a century.
Fermentation like at a winery
Cacao farmers hike uphill for up to 4 hours to harvest the cacao fruit. The cacao beans - still in their sweet, fruity pulp - are then purchased by our partner Agrofloresta in the villages and then taken directly to their fermentadora. There, the beans usually ferment for five to six days in tabebuia wooden boxes (a tropical wood). Only the closely monitored fermentation ensures that the full potential of the local cacao varieties is developed. As in the process of wine making, Brix (sugar content), temperature and atmospheric conditions are constantly measured while the beans are fermenting. After fermentation, they are dried on elevated wooden platforms in the Mexican sun.
Local cacao farmers lightly roast their cacao beans over a fire and grind them together with corn into a fine flour. This mixture is then stirred in hot water with a long wooden stick called a molinillo until the cacao has dissolved and the drink is frothy. This is how the locals start almost every morning in the Mexican jungle - for 4000 years. For cacao farmers, this traditional drinking chocolate has rightly become part of the morning routine, as the cacao is a great source of nutrients.
"Cacao is our traditional way of life," says Jose. He adds that his family uses 60 kg of cacao annually in their cooking, which they use for their morning traditional drinking chocolate and mole (spice sauce).
"I come from Tabasco,
with nodes of Mayan blood
where the ground cacao
gave a new meaning to the water"
Loosely translated poem by Carlos Pellicer Cámara.
History of cacao cultivation in the Selva Zoque
Despite the region's millennia-old cacao culture, cacao cultivation has experienced a decline in recent decades. Local indigenous families have endured decades of low cacao prices and poverty. Faced with poverty and few opportunities in the small villages, many young villagers chose to migrate to Mexico's larger cities. Fortunately, local families do not give up their Tabasqueño cacao easily, as they use it daily for their drinking chocolate and spicy sauces, but the migration of young men and women is weakening their indigenous traditions and languages. The ancestral lands of the Zoque and Tzotzil tribes in the Selva Zoque are also under pressure: Pristine rainforest areas are being converted into cattle pastures and biodiversity losses are immense. Fortunately, large tracts of forest are owned by indigenous communities who are keeping the wilderness intact with their traditional lifestyle and careful management of the forest they call home.
Cocoa as a sign of new beginnings
Few peoples have been more persecuted throughout history than the indigenous tribes of Mesoamerica, but they have held on to their spirited traditions with resilience and rebellion. With the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores, the indigenous peoples lost their lands and were used as forced labourers on large haciendas for centuries. It was not until the Mexican Revolution that they regained their ancestral lands, where they could once again farm and practise their traditional way of life. After the Mexican Revolution, the Tzotzil moved back to the Selva Zoque, where they founded their village of Cerro Blanco. There they found old cacao trees in the shade of the forest. These old cacao trees are still standing today and are the mother trees of the cacao growing in the village.
📍 Cerro Blanco village: https://goo.gl/maps/oFCyDPR4e8gpKyTaA
Impact & Environmental Protection
The native forests of the Zoque and Tzotzil tribes in the Selva Zoque are disappearing. Cocoa projects like Original Beans' are raising the local price of cacao and actively converting cleared pastureland back into traditional mixed forests. While Zoque and Tzotzil farmers are able to improve their livelihoods through cacao sales, the mixed forests also support the conservation of endangered animals such as spider monkeys and jaguars.
That's why Original Beans has been working on this since 2014:
- Establishing a direct trade supply chain and supporting organic certification for 3 indigenous villages.
- Educating farmers in forest-friendly and organic cacao farming practices
- Raising selected tabasqueño cacao and forest trees in 7 nurseries.
- Convert rangelands into diverse cacao forests that act as buffer zones and wildlife corridors at the rainforest boundary
- Protect 1,200 hectares of rainforest and native landscape through conservation agreements
- "It's important to teach our children to be patient and protect our land so that each generation has a livelihood." Don José, cacao farmer in Cerro Blanco
40,000 new cacao trees planted in one year
Original Beans works directly with local farmers like José and their local partner Agrofloresta. They have built them a direct trade supply chain that guarantees high and stable cacao prices for farmers and a forest conservation project through which the most aromatic and resilient of the tabasqueño cacao are grown in nurseries and then planted in cacao forests. 40,000 cacao trees have been planted in 2019 alone, and 62 hectares of land have been converted from cattle pastures to mixed forests to date.
Cacao grows along with chili, vanilla, allspice, ...
10 selected varieties of cacao grow here under the canopy of cedars along with 40 different crops and tree species, including cacao, tomatillo, chili, vanilla, allspice, cinnamon, breadnut and annatto. This diverse mixed forest is an excellent example of how sustainable cultivation can have a positive impact on the environment and the local community at the same time.
Cocoa forests as nature's buffer zones
Healthy cacao forests act as buffer zones for primary forest and corridors for wildlife moving between forest areas. They store CO2, enrich soil, protect watersheds, and provide their gardeners with a wide variety of food and income sources. This is the most sustainable land use model at these latitudes, and has been for thousands of years.
Thanks to Original Beans
All photos as well as the basic data and direct interview quotes were kindly provided by Jan Schubert of Original Beans. Original Beans is both a chocolate brand and now a major importer of cacao beans, and Jan travels South America on their behalf to build projects and develop long-term partnerships with smallholder farmers and local partners on the ground. We buy our cacao beans directly from Original Beans, who set the highest sustainability standards for their cacao that go far beyond organic certification.
You can order the cacao here.