For the inaugural interview in this section, it felt fitting to speak with Servio Pachard, who I consider my mentor in this field. I first met Servio in 2007, at the annual Red de Guardianes de Semillas seed exchange, which was held in Manabí that year. It was only my second year in Ecuador, and my first year working in forest conservation and permaculture design. At that point, Servio was already regarded as one of the preeminent authorities on organic agroforestry in the region. In the years that followed, I made frequent trips to Servio’s farm and he made frequent trips to the Jama-Coaque Reserve (JCR) to offer technical assistance and general guidance on anything and everything related with sustainable agroforestry. A good portion of the plants and trees that are currently growing in JCR were given to me by Servio from his farm.
Servio’s background in cacao cultivation reaches back four generations. His great grandfather was one of the first men in the modern era (i.e, the 1800s) to colonize the mountainous forest around present-day Piedra de Plata. Servio and his family live on the farm his grandparents started, and he continues developing it into an edible garden of Eden. To satisfy your hunger at Servio’s farm—called Finca Sarita, after his oldest daughter—all you need to do is wander around and pull things off of trees and eat them. Finca Sarita is one of the inspirations for the food forest we cultivated around the Bamboo House in the Jama-Coaque Reserve.
Describing Servio’s professional background is more tricky, because he’s done a little bit of everything. He’s worked on projects with INIAP, he’s held a teaching position at the nearby polytecnic university (ESPAM), he’s commercially cultivated coffee, banana, papaya, rice, dragon fruit, and cacao—to name just a few. His name is well-known in organic food markets in Quito, where many of his products are in high demand. People interested in organic agriculture often come to stay at his farm to work as his apprentice for a few days, weeks, months. But cacao has always been his primary passion. When Carl and I started To’ak in 2013, Servio was one of the first people we turned to. Servio has held the distinguished position of Harvest Master at To’ak ever since.
Finca Sarita is where we ferment and dry our cacao for To’ak. During harvest season, Carl and I spend several nights per month at Servio’s house. For guests, Servio built a house in the top of a massive mango tree, which is where we stay—a good 15m high. The best part about spending the night at Servio’s house are the meals with his family, which usually involve Servio telling stories over home-made chocolate swabbed on exotic fruits like mamey, sapote, giron, etc. Servio may be the best story teller I’ve ever met, and this here is just a snippet. I recorded this conversation while sitting down at his dinner table in April of 2017 the night after our bi-weekly cacao harvest in Piedra de Plata. Below is the English translation of the transcript.
JT: How long has cacao been in your life?
SP: Since as long as I can remember. My great grandparents and my grandparents made their living from cacao. Ever since I can remember, I would eat the pulp. We were always checking to see if the pods were ripe. As a kid I knew which pods were ready and which weren’t. I grew up on cacao.
JT: And that was on this same farm [Finca Sarita]?
SP: Yes, on this very farm. My great grandfather arrived to these lands when it was pure wilderness, in the 1860s. His name was Francisco Vélez, people called him Pancho, and his wife, who was my great grandmother, was Rosa Solórzano. They had 17 children together. When they first arrived here they lived off of hunting and fishing, until they started to raise some animals and cultivate cacao, coffee, and other fruits, which was what everyone grew in this area here, and they lived their whole lives from that. In those times there were no means of transport. They gathered their cacao and transported it downriver by raft to the city.
JT: To Calceta?
SP: Yes, to Calceta. And from Calceta they took it by train to Bahía [de Caraquez].
JT: And from there it went by ship to Europe?
JT: Was this your grandfather or your great-grandfather?
SP: My great-grandfather
JT: Where was he from?
SP: He came from Rocafuerte. He immigrated here during the rubber boom. Back then there were rubber tappers. They went go through the forest looking for wild rubber trees, because at that time there were no rubber tree plantations. Since there was no other way to make money, he went into the forest to harvest rubber and then take it downriver to Calceta, or sometimes to Tosagua.
JT: Were there other people here?
SP: When my great-grandparents arrived here in Sarampión, there were only four houses, which belonged to my great-grandfather’s brother, one other man, and a friend that they brought from Rocafuerte.
JT: Were there people in Piedra de Plata at that time?
SP: People arrived to Piedra de Plata some four or five years later from this, because people were immigrating, they were moving deeper into the forest as they went. All land here was unclaimed, so anybody could stake a claim and say “this is mine.” That’s how it worked around here because there were no previous owners, the land was unpopulated. Then later, there were a lot of people who made a business out of this activity—of claiming lands just to sell them.
JT: Where did your great-grandfather’s family live?
SP: In the part beyond Piedra de Plata. Passing Piedra de Plata there is a place called Guayacan that’s an hour outside of Piedra de Plata. When they arrived there, he stood on a hill and looked out and basically said, “From this hill to that other hill to that mountain, this is mine.” This was where the headwaters of the Daule and Carrizal rivers are. He claimed all those valleys, and that’s why we have family there. Everybody is family there. For example, my grandmother’s surname was Velez—everyone there is either Velez Ramírez or Ramírez Velez. There are now five or six communities that used to be my great-grandfathers’ land back in the day, they’re now populated with his descendants—a big family.
JT: Do you know what year he arrived, more or less?
SP: If we do a little math, let’s see, my great grandmother had seventeen children. My grandmother was the third to last. She was born in 1907.
JT: And they were all born here?
SP: All were born in these parts, at home. My great-grandmother never went to a hospital, never vaccinated, nothing, and they were very strong people. They never got sick.
JT: Where did your great-grandfather get the cacao beans that he planted?
SP: The story goes that he brought some from Rocafuerte and some from Pichincha [Pichincha the small town in Manabí, not the province]. From his house in the woods, it was 12 hours by horse to Calceta, and it was also 12 hours to go to Pichincha. When the trails were too muddy, they became too difficult for mules to carry cacao to Calceta, so he went through the hills to Pichincha to sell his cacao there instead. Then he brought seeds back home from there. Then when he went to Calceta and Rocafuerte, he brought seeds back from there too. All we know is that those places are where he got the seeds. We don’t know who gave it to him or where he took them from, but my grandmother said her father got his cacao seeds from Pichincha and Rocafuerte.
JT: What time are we talking about?
SP: This would be starting around 1870, I think.
JT: So it was definitely Ancient National cacao.
SP: Oh yes, pure National. Some of his old cacao trees are still up there.
JT: Did your grandparents ever talk about Witches’ Broom disease?
SP: Yes, of course. For example, during the cacao boom, cacao was their main income. Cacao was the star product, the most profitable. My great grandfather had a fleet of mules of ten, twenty, or thirty mules, and everybody put their two sacks of cacao onto a mule and then traveled down to Calceta where the depot was. There they unloaded all their cacao and the person working there would shout out “Whose is this?” and someone would say, “It’s don Pancho’s.”
JT: That was your great grandfather’s name?
SP: His name was Francisco Velez and he went by the name Pancho. That was during the cacao boom. My grandmother told me that later there was this “blight,” because “blight” is what they called the disease. That was around 1915-1920. It spread because everyone was sharing the same cacao sacks. When you brought your cacao to town, you brought it in a sack, and then this sack was recycled and intermingled with other sacks taken back to other farms, or to wherever. The blight spread because everyone was sharing sacks.
JT: Did the infected trees die or did they just not produce as well?
SP: They didn’t die. They weren’t producing well, and the fruit that they did produce was damaged. So production dropped drastically. My grandmother also told me that her father, since he was disillusioned, started to shift toward cattle ranching, because it became more lucrative. So cacao started to take a back-seat, is what they told me.
JT: What was this farm [Finca Sarita] like when you were a child?
SP: It used to be all very old cacao trees and other fruit trees, and everything was huge. My grandmother never let anybody cut even a branch from any of the trees. I was the one who stayed here after all my uncles left. I stayed here alone with my grandfather and my mom. I harvested the cacao all week, because we sold cacao to buy food for the whole week. I was the one who took the cacao into town to sell, starting when I was about eight years old.
JT: What was the price of cacao then?
SP: The price was relatively good during that phase. We earned enough from cacao to pay people to help us work the land, to buy food for the whole week, and save a bit. My grandmother was the one who controlled the money. She was the person who always guided the family.
JT: A matriarch.
SP: She was.
JT: When did she pass away?
SP: Ten years ago.
JT: How old was she?
SP: She was 95.
JT: Tell me about the 1998 El Niño floods.
SP: That’s something I don’t even want to remember. In our house the water came up to here. [Servio indicates the floor of his elevated house].
JT: Here? In the same house?
SP: No, back then we lived in a house over there. Where we are right now was all trees that died from the flood. Only those giant mango trees are left, over there, six mango trees, those giant ones, and the tagua palms. The rest died—orange, cacao, it all died. There used to be avocado trees here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, which my grandfather called squash avocado, because they were nearly thirty centimeters each. They were long, with a slender neck and the bottom was shaped like a squash that you would see hanging on the tree. What a beauty, and you don’t find that avocado anywhere else. They were huge trees. The avocados are what I used to fatten the hogs.
JT: Your favorite cacao tree [Servio even has a name for it], was that one planted before or after El Niño?
SP: That was here before. It lost all its leaves in the flood, it was left with nothing, but it came back to life after the water finally went down.
JT: How old is it now?
SP: Around twenty-five years old.
JT: Because you remember that we did the DNA analysis on it, and the analysis found it to be close to pure National. Where did you get the seed?
SP: My grandfather recycled it from right here, it was grown from seed from other trees in this farm. Back in the day, if a tree died or if there was an open space, you just gathered seed from the most productive trees. We planted by direct-seeding—we never used seed bags. We’d put five or six seeds in the same spot and then we selected the best seedlings from that clump.
JT: I’ve eaten your homemade chocolate at this table probably a hundred times. Where did you learn how to do that?
SP: My grandmother. She made chocolate on special occasions. For example, we always had chocolate for Holy Week.
JT: What form was the chocolate in? Liquid or solid?
SP: A drink. It was a drink for as long as I can remember because back then they didn’t have molds, they just molded the pure chocolate mass into balls with their hands. After it dried, they bundled it in banana leaves and tied it with two points at the ends, always like that, the two ends were tied, and that’s how they stored it.
JT: And that was 100% chocolate?
SP: Yes, without sugar. Then, to make the drink, they scraped it with a sharp knife and put the shavings into hot water with panela [raw sugar cane, also produced on the farm]. The majority of people drank it like that. Recently people started adding milk, but originally, we never added milk, it was just a dark chocolate drink.
JT: Why don’t people in Piedra de Plata drink as much chocolate as you do here?
SP: It’s true, they don’t drink it as much as I do here. They only drink it on special occasions like Holy Week, Christmas, or when someone gives birth, which is another tradition here. When a woman is about two months from giving birth, they start preparing the cacao, because they believed that chocolate was a stimulant for milk production in women. So if a woman gives birth and isn’t lactating, she’s given chocolate to drink. Once the mother drinks chocolate, the milk flows; she’s got so much she can sell it. It’s incredible.
JT: Only the mother drinks it?
SP: They make it for the mother but everybody takes advantage and drinks it too. And when the children are young they drank chocolate too, because a big pot of chocolate is made and everyone who comes to visit the newborn baby also gets to drink chocolate. The neighbors get in on it too.
JT: Maybe it was reserved only for special occasions in the past because cacao used to be such a lucrative thing that people didn’t want to eat too much of it—they’d rather sell it. But now, for the majority of cacao producers, the price of cacao is very low.
SP: Extremely low. Since I can remember, the price of cacao has never been as low as it is now. I don’t remember what the price used to be, because back then the currency was the sucre [the official currency of Ecuador was changed to the dollar in 2001], but it used to be extremely lucrative.
JT: As you know, in Manabí cacao is cultivated mainly on small farms, mostly by old-timers. How do you foresee the future of cacao production in Ecuador? Still on small farms? Will there by a move toward large farms?
SP: I think it’s more likely to be on small farms, because you know, the average Manaba [person from Manabí] has five, six, eight children, so the farms are getting smaller all the time, because the majority of farms are inheritances that are divided up from the big tracts of land that their grandparents had—as in our case, for example. But the problem is that cacao just isn’t looking very profitable in the future. A hectare of National cacao produced between 10—15—20 quintals—it doesn’t yield that much. And if the prices keep going down as they are now—for example, dry cacao is $86 per quintal right now, depending on the world commodity price. And that’s just the official price. Most of that goes to the intermediaries who buy cacao from the grower for much less—as little as $25 per quintal of wet cacao. So cacao growers are extremely disillusioned. I lot of people I’ve spoken with don’t know what to plant anymore, and some of them are already thinking that cacao is worthless now—that’s what many of them say. The growers in Piedra de Plata are lucky, they get extremely high prices from To’ak, but the rest of the cacao growers in Ecuador don’t have that opportunity.
JT: The disillusioned growers—what do they think about CCN 51? Do they see it as an option or are they ruling it out?
SP: Yes, I’ve spoken with many of them and they see it as an option. The thing is, National cacao produces little and CCN-51 cacao produces twice or three times as much. So they consider that getting paid five or ten dollars less per quintal of CCN-51 is still more than double the revenue from producing National, so it’s more profitable. That’s why growers are leaning toward planting more CCN-51. But really, the price for all cacao [CCN-51 and Nacional] is so low right now that growers are saying, “I’d rather not plant any cacao, I’m better off planting something else.” They’re thinking it’s better to plant bananas or mandarin oranges or something else.
JT: I’ve been reading about the latest clones released by INIAP and they’re saying that these clones are just as productive as CCN 51. Is this true? [INIAP is Ecuador’s agricultural research institute. The clones are EET 800 and EET 801.]
SP: Yes, it’s true. I was at the launch in Pichilingue [INIAP’s experimental breeding station] and spoke with the directors. We tested the quality of the seeds and everything, and yes, they tell me that it’s the same or more productive than CCN 51—up to four quintals more per hectare.
JT: And the quality?
JT: I’d like to taste it and see.
SP: You haven’t tasted it yet?
JT: Not yet.
SP: I was there with the guy who runs their chocolate lab, he’s the taster. He gave me several bars to taste. It seems like an interesting new option for people.