Chocal Chocolate Farm

Chocal: Voluntourism at a chocolate farm in the Dominican Republic

Do you know where the chocolate in your favorite candy bar comes from? Most of it comes from West Africa, where, according to a recent Washington Post article, more than two million children are involved in the cocoa trade. Essentially, “Mars, Nestlé, and Hershey pledged nearly two decades ago to stop using cocoa harvested by children. Yet much of the chocolate you buy still starts with child labor.”

Hopefully this makes you pause and think about the chocolate you consume. The good news is that there are places that produce chocolate in ways that help the economy but don’t use child labor. If you like chocolate and want to support the local economy on your trip to the Dominican Republic, a voluntourism experience at a cacao farm might be for you! Did I mention the chocolate?!

Voluntourism involves volunteering and tourism. You’re still having fun and experiencing the local cultural, but you’re also volunteering. It’s a good way to travel while learning and giving back. So, when I heard of Chocal, an organic chocolate cooperative run by women, I knew that this was not a typical chocolate company or a typical Dominican Republic excursion.

Growing cacao

From the coast near Puerto Plata, on the north side of the Dominican Republic, we headed into the densely wooded mountains and started seeing our first glimpses of the cacao farms. When we arrived at the farm it was immediately clear that we were going to learn a lot about the chocolate making process and were were going to work! We started where all good chocolate starts–with the seeds. We planted each slimy, germinated seed in a little bag that we had filled with soil. Pieces of broken plastic served as perfect-sized trowels.

Once the cocoa plants were a few inches tall they would be replanted in the fields and in a few years turn into fruit-bearing trees. The trees grow cocoa pods called mazorcas that are about 8 inches long when ripe. I was surprised that the mazorcas grew directly on the trunk of the tree!

Not ripe yet…

Farmers know when the mazorcas are ready to be harvested by looking at the color and listening to the sound they make when tapped. Once harvested, they are cut open and Surprise! look like this inside:

The beans are covered in a thick, white coating that is the pulp of the fruit. This is edible (although I wouldn’t recommend it!) and has a bittersweet, fermented taste.

After the beans are removed from the mazorca pods, the white outer pulp is used in the fermentation process. The farm we were at is a fairly big operation, so this is done in a series of wooden vats. At smaller farms the fermenting is often done by wrapping the beans in banana leaves.

Next, the beans were put out on large wooden platforms for a few days. Workers rake the seeds frequently to help dry them out and make sure that all of the fleshy pulp has been removed. That cute little roof in the photo? It can be rolled over to cover the cacao if it rains or to increase the temperature if it isn’t hot enough.

From cacao beans to chocolate

We left the farm and drove to Chocal, the women’s chocolate collective down the road that would process the chocolate. I was impressed by all of the different organizations that were working together to make this operation successful while still keeping it community focused and community lead. A Peace Corps volunteer had worked on the project at the beginning, and numerous governments, private development organizations and tourism outlets continue to collaborate. The interesting thing about Chocal is that it’s run by women, and their pride in being business owners was evident.

Good ones on the left, bad ones on the right

After hearing a bit about the collective, we were given hairnets and shoe covers and the work began. The dried beans now needed to be sorted, and this was the hardest part by far! Beans that were shriveled, broken or too flat were thrown out. I felt like we threw out about half of the beans we sorted, which was frustrating after knowing how much work was put into getting the beans to that point.

I made friends with the son of María, one of the workers, and he helped me sort the beans. Or more exactly, he supervised over my shoulder, shaking his head and making exasperated sounds whenever I misplaced a bean. Speaking fluent Spanish obviously came in handy, and my new friend told me all about his school and his family. Don’t worry, no child labor here, he was off of school for Christmas vacation and very proud to help out.

After the beans had been sorted they were taken to a machine to take the shell off. What was left was nibs of chocolate, but they needed to be sorted again, because bits of the shell were mixed in. This sorting was easier that choosing the good beans, but I was again struck by how tedious and inefficient it was to sort by hand. The women mentioned that in bigger factories this sorting was done by fans, blowing the chaff of the shells away, but at Chocal they still sorted by hand because it provided more jobs for older women.

After sorting the nibs, finally it was time for chocolate in a form that I recognized! The melted nibs were mixed and cooled to the perfect temperature on the table by María’s practiced strokes.

We scooped the melted chocolate into the molds to make little chocolates and off they went into the refrigerator. They would later be sold in Chocal’s store.

The Finished Product

In the next room the post-production team went to work on packaging. Boxes for chocolate bars were folded into the correct shape by hand. The group bagged and labeled bolas of chocolate. Interesting cultural note here–these slabs of cacao are used by Dominicans to make hot chocolate. A bit is shaved off with a knife and mixed with water or milk and I have to say that the taste was very different from any hot chocolate I’d had.

Our last stop was the gift shop, where of course we all wanted to check out the finished product and bring some home. It wasn’t cheap, but it tasted a lot better knowing that it was produced in an environment free of child labor and that our work that day had helped to make it possible.

Posing with María
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