Last week I was kindly invited to spend a week living with a local family in the
small farming community in the region of Piura, North of Peru.
I stayed with Juan Franciso and his wife Fidelina Pena. Juan Francisco, more amicably known as Pancho, is the Vice-President of the community’s cacao producing association.
Like most of the producers in this area, Pancho owns just under a hectare of land planted with cacao trees. His cacao field yields approximately 4,500 kilos in wet cacao per year, equivalent to to 1,200 kilos of dried beans per year. This brings in an income of 8,400 soles, or about 3,200 US dollars, per year. Although this sounds like a very small amount for a family to live on, Pancho tells me that prior to the establishment of the cooperative, a kilo of cacao was priced at less than one sole, or less 50 US cents.
To complement his earnings from cacao, Pancho trades in domestic appliances and mobile phones, which he sells on favourable terms to his customers, who can pay by installments and in varying amounts. Accompanying him on his daily business trips to the nearby town, 40 minutes away by moto-taxi, to collect the sums that his customers owe him, I see the hardship of their lives and their determination to earn extra cash.
Pancho, a family man who did not have access to secondary education, tells me that his main priority is his children’s education. When you really need money, he says, you always find a way to earn it.
All of Pancho’s four children have had the opportunity to go to university. His youngest daughter is currently studying Business Administration at the University of Piura.
In all the cacao-producing regions that I have visited in Peru, I have seen how education is a key priority for farming families. They don’t want their children to suffer from the financial difficulties that they have experienced. However, sending your children to study in a nearby city is costly and hard to finance if you rely on only one hectare of cacao for your principal income. Unless they are lucky enough to grow a special variety that commands high prices, the only way for farmers to increase their income from cacao fields is through higher productivity, which is why the native criollo variety of cacao has often been replaced by the forastero cacao variety CCN 51, which is two or even three time more productive.
Peru’s agricultural scene is quite unusual for Latin America. In other Latin American countries, it is still quite common to see huge farming estates, known as “fincas” or “haciendas”, still owned by families dating back to the colonial period. However in Peru, in the 1970s, agrarian reform under the military dictatorship of Juan Velasco Alvarado led to the redistribution of land to small individual owners. That is why it is quite common to see farmers with only a hectare or two of land.
Staying with Pancho’s family is a lovely experience and one that I will always cherish. Family life and conviviality are the top priorities in this tranquil community. The simple honest values of life which are often long forgotten or put aside in the city are felt in every way here. Although they have very little money, there is a feeling of belonging, peacefulness and happiness. It makes me wonder how it is that we in the developed world have allowed the materialism of city life have to dominate and destroy our simple human values.
Every night we eat delicious dinners, cooked with freshly grown ingredients. As in most of the farmers’ houses, Fidelina cooks with a clay oven heated with wood.
Everything that we eat is either freshly grown, or bred in the back yard. The yard is populated by hens, turkeys, ducks, goats, and pigs, all living happily together.
During my stay, I also visit the nearby communities. I spend two days with the agricultural engineer, Efren, visiting the producers’ cacao fields. Regular pruning, the use of natural fertilisers, and protecting the cacao trees from diseases are needed for growing flourishing cacao trees.
Despite each community only being a few kilometres away from the next one, every community has its own sense of character and personality. In this community, for example, nearly everyone belongs to the evangelist church. You feel a real sense of solidarity and respect.
As we visit the producers’ cacao fields, I see many different fruit trees among the cacao trees: pineapples, coconuts, bananas, a citrus type of mango called mango-ciruela, and passion fruit. It is amazing to see all these fruits growing in abundance amongst the cacao trees. It is fruit paradise! As Efren points out, it is common for the farmers in this community to have diversified crops to provide a more stable income.
We walk further up the valley, where the cacao fields border with the river.
It is in this community that I get to observe the bi-weekly “acopio”, delivery of the producers’ wet cacao. As each member of the cacao association delivers their sacks of wet cacao freshly harvested that same morning, the President of the Association weighs each sack and calculates their pay.
The wet cacao is then placed into the fermentation modules, where the beans will be dried for a week and then packed off to the cooperative’s headquarters, ready for export.