Bittersweet Valentines

Here’s a guest post from Wayne Roberts, whose No Nonsense Guide to World Food is, as I’ve said before, a cracking introduction.

Hopeless Romantics Do Valentine’s Day Chocolate One Better
Oaxaca, Mexico
By Wayne Roberts

Traipsing through the jungles of Mexico in January with Michael Sacco, a Toronto-based fair trader partnering with Indigenous people in Oaxaca, I got a taste of the bittersweet romantic adventure behind the romantic and sweet treat recently branded to symbolize Valentine’s Day.

Chocolate goes to the heart of the Indigenous experience in Mexico, a testimony to the high level of agriculture and civilization developed before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Aside from chocolate, now the world’s most talked-about treat, about two-thirds of the planet’s most common fruits and vegetables, including corn, tomatoes, chilies and potatoes, were domesticated in this region, some before the era of ancient Greece and Rome.

Sacco, a 30-something former soccer star, sets a pace that shows no mercy for my creaking body. He wants to give me and my family the full intercultural experience of the original and authentic cacao, a bitter medicinal drink loaded with antioxidants, polyphenols and other healing micronutrients. Through his organization ChocoSol, Sacco hopes to be part of the action that encourages a healthy economy for the world’s 50 million cacao producers, often children living in conditions akin to slavery.

Sacco took us to San Felipe de Leon, an unmapped village of 1100 people we got to after pushing his friend Chris’ 1992 Mazda up dirt trails for a few hours after leaving paved highway, itself a series of hairpin turns about eight hours from the state capital of Oaxaca.

The terrain is typical of the mountainous, rainforest-covered areas occupied by many of the world’s almost billion Indigenous people, excluded from the most productive farmland closest to mass markets, but also insulated from the impositions of dominant groups by the benign neglect of isolation and the absence of a resource base that had any value – at least until recently.

Life in San Felipe has much in common with what it was a thousand years ago, when the village is said to have been founded. Most of the women speak only the Indigenous language, many of the homes are built from traditional materials, many religious traditions survive, most work hours are spent in a cashless economy, and all land still belongs to the village, which grants individuals and families secure tenancy.

Our car sputters across a stream and we arrive shortly at the home – a modern cement bungalow, with poultry on one side, orange and lemon trees on the other, a rushing mountain stream for a backyard, and dirt-floored garage for our sleeping quarters – of Don Max, the elected leader of the community, a passionate environmentalist and trusted co-op activist.

He takes us up the lane to show off the new co-op building the government provided to support non-timber forest products, hoping that rising global demand for products such as genuine cacao might supplement subsistence living with a few hundred dollars a year in cash for each family.

Then Don Max sends us across a handbridge to the home of Don Rosendo, the village elder who sees cacao as an opportunity to make extra income from a tree that can be intercropped in the forest, tended while villagers go about their traditional daily trek through the mountain ranges to tend the cornfields, gather firewood to cook the daily staple of corn tortillas, as well as fodder for livestock and greens to supplement the tortilla, beans, rice and occasional slices of egg or meat.

Seeing Sacco – known universally in these parts as “Chivo,” (the goat), as much for his uncontrollable enthusiasm as his impish sprig of a goatee – Don Rosendo grabs his machete and takes us to his backyard, where he clambers barefoot up a tree and hacks down some cacao pods. I’m 76, he says in Spanish to me, how old are you: 73? I murmur something about mountain life making people look younger than their years, and before long we’re clowning it up, wearing squash shells they use for dishes as skullcaps. (Note to tourists: if you want special treatment from the locals, bring along an ageing Anglo, since they’re still a rare sight.)

We’re now officially welcomed in the village, and can start to work the next day.
After waking us at 5:30 to grind corn with his wife and make the tortillas, Don Max leads us up a mountain goat of a trail to his hectare of farmland and hectare of forest land. Noticing my limp, he reaches for his machete and, without losing a step, chops off a branch and passes me back a perfect cane. We wend our way through what seems a thick and wild jungle, but is in fact a well-tended forest garden – featuring heart of palm, coffee, red cacao and the prized white cacao(known in the area as “the jaguar’s cacao”) dangling vanilla, yucca (with starchy tubers that provide carbs when other crops fail) and countless berries and leaves that have no word in English. All these plants grow under the umbrella of broadleaf trees that protect tender plants and fragile soil on the steep slopes from eroding during the rainy season – a perfect adaptation of sustainable food production to the society and ecology of mountain rainforests. Many of the crops take a decade before they fruit, but last a hundred years – one reason why tree-based food systems are often called “permaculture.”

More domesticated is the “milpa,” a hectare of sloped land Don Max has hacked out of the forest with his machete, thereby not disturbing the fragile topsoil. Milpa features the “three sisters” of ancient Mexican Indigenous farming – corn, which requires lots of nitrogen, beans growing up the corn stalks, which replenish the nitrogen, and squash, with leaves that protect the soil from erosion. Less known is that milpa includes hundreds of “wild” greens that balance a diet otherwise overloaded with carbs and short on vitamins and minerals. The full milpa essential to a healthy diet can only be grown organically since sprays that protect corn kill off the wild greens – one of the reasons successful peasant farming increasingly features organic methods throughout the subsistence farms of the Global South.

It’s the dream of Don Max and his village friends that fairly-traded, small-scale exports of high-value crops such as vanilla and cacao can provide them with cash that allows them to school their children and buy a few treats and labor-saving devices (electric corn grinders would be high on most women’s lists) and thereby sustain a way of life that honors Indigenous traditions and contributions and that – rare in the Northern half of the planet – actually leaves the world with more carbon and life than the economy takes out.

Thanks to our infatuation with ethical cacao, that vision is not hopelessly romantic.

(Adapted from NOW Magazine, Feb 12-18, 2009; Wayne Roberts is the author of The No-Nonsense Guide to World Food)