A look at the people, places, and companies fueling the ethical production of chocolate

The production of chocolate has long been marred with market instability, human rights abuse, and environmental mismanagement. For decades, a lack of transparency into the production of chocolate and consumer concern forged a suitable cognitive disconnect allowing for the perpetual forward motion of the industry. However today, a small minority of uncompromisingly responsible supply chain stakeholders in the industry are casting a new vision for the industry, a vision defined by human relationships, ecological innovation, fair wages, and the very best chocolate in the world.

Cacao farmer Rene Mendoza settles in between the divergent branches of a cacao tree to prune its leaves.   

A teenage boy fiddles with his cell phone as his older sister (right of frame) diligently washes the family's laundry, and his mother (center frame, in the distance) hangs the washed clothing at their home a few minutes outside Babahoyo, a small Ecuadorian city boarded by the San Pablo and Caracol river. 

Ecuador was once the preeminent force in chocolate production globally. No where on earth will you find land richer in biodiversity than that of Ecuador. Its borderline finicky topography, equatorial climate, and nutrient rich soil all provide fertile grounds for growing cacao -- the raw materials for our chocolatey indulgence.


By the middle of the 19th century European high society’s insatiable thirst for drinking cacao, and innovation around solid forms of chocolate spurred cacao exports to account for over one half of all Ecuador’s exports.

However, Ecuador's reign as the world’s darlings of cacao production was relatively short lived as the early 20th century was host to two devastating waves of fungal diseases that annihilated the majority of the country’s cherished Arriba cacao trees.  

The country of Ecuador has the most biodiversity per square kilometer of any nation in the world. The extreme variability of its topography is one of the main reasons Ecuador has such a rich mosaic of fertile soils. 

A worker at Fortaleza Del Valle, inspects a bag of fresh, unfermented cacao beans dropped off by a local farmer.

In the 1960’s an industrious plant biologist and son of a cacao farmer, Homer Castro began developing a grand plan to create a super cacao plant that could withstand the onslaught of fungal diseases that plagued Ecuadorian cacao crops for decades. A decade worth of international exploration and trial and error ultimately culminated in the creation of CCN-51, a hybrid super plant that would provide farmers with higher yields and more resilient plants than its predecessor, Arriba cacao. In 1997, El Niño ravished the Ecuadorian coastline compromising the crops of many of the countries small scale cacao farmers, and providing the impetus needed for the mass adoption of the stronger, less vulnerable CCN-51.


Today, the monolithic sprawls of conventional CCN-51 farms are ubiquitous in the country’s growing regions, but the success of CCN-51 comes at a cost. Problems with erosion and diminished soil quality are becoming of grave concern to CCN-51 farmers who are worried about the longevity of their land.

Local farm owner Rafael, observes a sprawl of recently fermented cacao beans neatly spread across the ground to be dried. 

Beyond being an owner of his own farm, Rafael is a member of UNOCACE, a cooperative in the province of Guayas comprised of 774 local farmers. 94% of UNOCACE's farmers own less than 10 hectares of land. 

Walter - Agroforestry Technician
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Walter Yana Cuaker
Agroforestry Technician

"I wish that everyone in the world  would reflect and change our attitudes so that we can work with nature, not against it. We know and we can see the destruction that is occurring, we are smart human beings. We need to realize the damage we do to Mother Nature we are doing to ourselves. We need to be more conscious of this and change our attitudes and act in a different way, hand in hand with nature not damaging it." -Walter

Today, Ecuador is on the precipice of a great cacao renaissance, one spawning from a healthy dose nationalistic reverence for the country's native variety of “Arriba” cacao, and necessitated by the failures of the conventional cacao production of CCN-51.


Unlike CCN-51, the Arriba bean revels in its complexity. Each bean provides a transference of the earthy essence of Ecuador to a consumer’s palate -- the bold flavor accented by fruity notes, presents a story of its origins. This mildly esoteric storytelling experience is one that the San Francisco based fair trade and organic food company Alter Eco aims to create with each of their chocolate bars. A mission driven company that often looks and feels more international NGO, than consumer food brand, Alter Eco is one of the few American chocolate companies that have matched the uncompromising idealism and virtuous audacity than that of the producers they source from. Both Alter Eco and cacao producers being requisite variables in the delicate fair trade chocolate formula.

Petra Heid, the head of sustainability for the Swiss Chocolatier and Alter Eco partner, Chocolats Halba scans a plot of farm land that recently implemented agroforestry land management systems to grow cacao and other native crops.   

Johanna Paredes, the head of quality assurance for UNOCACE splits a batch of beans to assess its ripeness, and check for any topical blemishes that may affect the taste of a bean. 

The Fair trade movement emerged not as counter to the West’s ever expanding trade interest, rather it grew from the humble efforts of a handful of religious groups and NGOs that felt compelled to sell handmade goods from developing countries. The systemization of such altruism has turned into an alternative way of doing business; aiming to bring more value and equity to all stakeholders in a supply chain.


Fair trade requires a committed ecosystem of producers, co-ops, buyers, brands, and customers for the system to work. Companies like Alter Eco, who interface with farmers as well as customers, have their supply chain thoroughly audited by a third-party certifier like Fair Trade USA. To earn a certification, the brand is required to buy product from certified farms or co-ops, pay fair trade approved prices on product, pay additional premiums which become investment capital typically managed by a co-op and used at the discretion of its farming members, and go through the aforementioned supply chain auditing process.

UNOCACE workers run a batch of beans through a cacao packaging machine in which beans move down a vibrating surface and into a large 69 kilogram bag. 

An UNOCACE worker carries a large bag of cacao beans to be stored for a few days before being shipped off to clients in Europe or North America. 

A group of factory workers at a large cacao powder and butter facility located in the small town of Duran just a few minutes east of Guayaquil, take a break from work to pose for a photo. 

Not unlike other food commodities, chocolate has endured its fair share market instability. The current downswing of cacao prices on the New York Stock Exchange has less to do with speculation and more to do with subdued demand spurred by health conscious customers, and huge yields from countries like the Ivory Coast and Ghana in 2016.


This supply heavy market imbalance would typically be of grave concern to Ecuadorian cacao farmers whose livelihood is inextricably linked to the global marketplace. However, with this emerging renaissance in Ecuador comes some basic, but ground breaking adjustment to the unit economics of chocolate.

For one, the classic farmer to co-operative relationship which allows farmers to become members of a larger entity that will buy their crop, and sell it in aggregate with other local farmers, has become a relationship of empowerment and trust. Farmers have the ability to vote on Co-op leadership as well as farming initiatives and investments. In the case of UNOCACE, the co-op provides their farmers with agroforestry training and access to new plants that diversify both their crops and income.


Co-ops like UNOCACE and Fortaleza Del Valle, work closely with socially responsible buyers like Chocolats Halba to not only agree on pricing that far exceeds cacao’s stock market price, but pricing that is also stable amidst often tumultuous market conditions. Stable pricing provides farmers with much needed consistency to provide for their families and re-invest in their farms.


The relationship between buyers and brands can differ depending on a multitude of factors. In the case of Chocolats Halba and Alter Eco, the companies are two completely separate entities but their intimate partnership suggests that they are cut from the same sustainable cloth. Both companies work closely to determine and grow their network of suppliers, with Chocolats Halba, being the linchpin in those multi-layered relationship. Beyond procurement, Chocolats Halba is the manufacture of Alter Eco’s award winning line of organic chocolate, and works directly with Alter Eco to assist in the development and implementation of their sustainability strategy.


Brands ostensibly serve as the gatekeepers to the chocolate world for the general public. For centuries, chocolate brands have formulated a near spiritual experience for consumers that in its contemporary form begins with the visual allurement of the chocolate bar wrapper, and ends with the unconscionably satisfying mastication of the chocolate bar itself. Alter Eco aims to lift the veil from the customary blind indulgence, to a more conscious form of chocolate consumption. The unwrapping of an Alter Eco bar is met with a gentle smile of a farmer whose story graces the inside flap of its packaging. The company’s annual impact report gives their customers a snapshot of their social environmental work, and thus their virtuous audacity. The accumulation of these efforts can create brand and consumer partnerships, built on transparency, trust, and great chocolate.

Farm owners and members of the La Cruz coalition of the UNOCACE cooperative, meet to discuss their successes and challenges with the newly established FINCA agroforestry project led by management team at UNOCACE.

Students of a local school in Milagro, spend their lunch hour practicing magic tricks at the UNOCACE office and packaging facilities. 

A father of two boys have a conversation with the wife of a local butcher in the streets of Catarama, a town located on the east of the Catarama River.  

As the world’s population continues to ascend with no Malthusian plateau in clear sight, agricultural productivity becomes exceedingly important. Both the philosophy and methodology of industrial agriculture gained wide adoption in developed nations in the Post-World War II era, as economic prosperity and population growth started an impressive upward trajectory. We now have a better idea of the negative externalities that are linked to the mass production of food. Environmental degradation, public health challenges, the unethical treatment of animals are all concerns forcing us to rethink how we grow our food, helping to ignite a retreat back to small scale food production.


Is small scale farming merely a romanticized dream with little to no economic viability, or is going back to “the roots” of farming actually possible? In developing countries like Ecuador, the cooperative model is a pillar in the farming system, bridging the vast divide between small scale farmers and a global market. With a distributive model that spans partnerships with hundreds to thousands of small scale farmers, cooperatives fundamentally reduces risk and is able to maintain the ecological and quality benefits that are synonymous with small scale organic farming. As members, farmers not only have a consistent buyer of their product and stable prices, but a membership within the buying organization. At UNOCACE this democratic model has built a dynamic network of participation between members and the heads of the co-op. The mindshare and resource pooling has helped to create programs like FINCA (translates to “small farm”), which has codified a dynamic agroforestry approach to producing Arriba cacao in biologically diverse conditions.  

Bolivian Agroforestry expert, Walter Yana Cuaker, uses a portion of a productive cacao plant to graft onto a plant with lower yields. Grafting is a common technique used in the agroforestry based production of cacao. 

Street vendors of Ecuador

Teenage boys living on farmland on the outskirts of Milagro convert their patio into a local barbershop for the afternoon.

Margoth Marciela Borja Naranjo - Cacao and Banana Farm Owner
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Margoth Marciela Borja Naranjo
Cacao and Banana Farm Owner

"I am grateful to all consumers for purchasing and consuming our chocolate. When people buy our chocolate, they help us create high quality products as well as create better futures for ourselves and our families."

Reverting back to the way nature intended things to be sounds nice, but how does an agroforestry project like FINCA affect yields, workflow, and the livelihood of farmers? In its early stages, the full circle approach to cacao production is showing positive results for all stakeholders. Farmers in particular are benefiting from their newly diversified portfolio of crops. FINCA not only handles the distribution of new cacao plants, but also provides fruit plants and timber trees that increase soil quality and shade cover respectively. Fruit trees end up providing farmers with new products that can be sold locally, or through specialized co-ops. This additional revenue can be the difference between being able to reinvest in next year’s season, or sending their children to school.


Although FINCA represents an upstream movement of small scale organic cacao production, the environmental implications of a project like FINCA can be significant at critical mass. Mitigating against growing environmental challenges like soil degradation, erosion, and water run-off in Ecuadorian farmland needs to happen for the sake of the country’s agricultural future. FINCA may be a roadmap illuminating the path of how that could be done, all while producing the world’s finest cocoa.

For three generations, the Borja family farm located in the hillside along Montalvo has been owned and operated by women. Originally owned by Zoila Amable Naranjo Gonsalez (far left), she later passed the farm down to her eldest daughter Irma Magdalena Borja Naranjo (third from the left), who managed the farm with the help of her sister, Olga Borja Naranjo (second from the left). Today, Margoth owns and operates the farm while her younger brother Antony Joel Borja Naranjo (third from right), studies at the local college. It's Margoth's hope that someday, her daughter Joselyn (front), will carry on the family's matriarchal legacy.

Eighty-five year old farm owner Luciano Salazar Beltran, prunes both his cacao plants and the timber tress that provide much needed shade to his cacao crops. 

Manual Feliciano Salazar Beltran - Cacao Farmer
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Manual Salazar Beltran
Cacao Farmer

"...there is a lot of effort put into guaranteeing quality cacao. We do it with passion and love. I would like consumers to appreciate and the products with the same passion and love that was put into cultivating it."

The chocolate supply chain an ecosystem. Stakeholder don’t represent a mere point in a linear line moving from production to consumption, rather, each stakeholder is a contributor to the ecosystem.


As consumers, we have been told to “buy with our values”. But for most of us, when budgets are tight, or that outfit we have been thinking about hits the sale rack, our values go out the window. However, if we do end up resisting the compulsion to abandon our values, we play our part in the ecosystem. Playing your part means that a remote farm town school funded by Fair Trade Premium gets off the ground faster. It means that a community of farmers may be able to avoid the health consequences connected with spraying herbicides and pesticides during growing seasons. It means that a small scale cacao producer may live with a little more security and dignity.

Fair trade as a necessary backbone for all this

Armando, also known as "El Jefe" of the cooperative Fortaleza Del Valle's recollection facilities, stands in between two long cacao drying platforms.

Three employees of Fortaleza Del Valle run a batch of dried beans through a vibrating packaging machine.

Armando, stands outside the packaging tent to watch his staff pack and weigh product. 

Fortaleza Del Valle's receiving and fermentation facilities welcome a steady stream of local farmers and co-op members who drop off their latest harvest to be weighed and sorted. The two employees pictured here are responsible for managing these transactions. 

A teenage boy awaits for the next drop off of cacao beans to arrive. 

©2020 Brenton Gieser