From the peaks of the Jama-Coaque Reserve in coastal Ecuador, you can observe the most endangered rainforest on Earth — and just beyond it, threatening to encroach on this conservational stronghold, a sea of deforested and degraded land.
Just 2% of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador remains standing today.
But luxury chocolate-maker To’ak, the local communities in and around the forest and not-for-profit Third Millennium Alliance (TMA) are working together to halt and reverse this deforestation.
“We’re using cacao trees as a forest-restoration tool,” To’ak and TMA co-founder Jerry Toth tells me.
“Our goal is to preserve the intact forest at the top of the mountain, and then work with cacao farmers in the middle zone — called the ‘buffer’ zone — where the forest has been degraded or partially deforested.
“The idea is that these parcels, which were defunct or abandoned cattle pasture, are converted not just into cacao farms, but into thriving forests that produce both food and revenue for farmers and structurally mimic the forest.
“The main benefit of the project is providing income to the most important communities in the buffer zone. There is, of course, a carbon benefit, which we quantify. There is a biodiversity benefit too, which we’re working to quantify.
“But the human benefit — the consciousness-building and ally-building — that's the most important benefit in my mind.”
Bridging the gap for local farmers
The moment a farmer enrols in TMA’s reforestation program, they receive their first monthly bridging payment. This upfront income is innovative and a necessity, because cacao trees take about four years to bear productive fruit.
“Farmers who are very strapped for cash can’t make a change on their land and wait four or five years for it to be economically effective,” Jerry explains.
“TMA pays farmers US$4,500 per hectare over five years, and these payments are equal to what the farmers will be earning from cacao. Immediately, their income is what it’s projected to be at full productivity.
“That’s really the difference-maker. It’s what gets them over the hump.”
In addition to cacao, farmers plant bananas and plantain too, both of which become productive in the first year and can be used as a source of income and food.
Additional benefits aside, “the critical factor that convinces local farmers to reforest their land is the premium prices they will be paid by To’ak for their cacao”, Jerry explains.
“Market economics is what keeps this wheel spinning.”
Back from the brink of extinction
In addition to helping restore the Pacific Forest, To’ak has helped bring back a cacao species from the brink of extinction.
Nacional is one of the oldest cacao varieties in the world, and it’s long been prized by chocolatiers for its fragrant aroma and signature flavour profile. But the outbreak of the Frosty Pod disease of 1917 and the Witches’ Broom disease of 1921 saw cacao yields rapidly decline in the 1920s, and prompted the introduction of foreign cacao varieties and hybridisation.
By 2009, finding a pure Nacional tree was an impossible feat — but this wasn’t a deterrent to the To’ak team. Nacional was the perfect base ingredient for their chocolate, and so, they set out to find cacao trees which predated the outbreak of, and had therefore survived, both diseases.
They struck gold deep in the wooded hillsides of the province of Manabí, after locals pointed them in the direction of nine pure Ancient Nacional cacao trees standing tall and proud in an old-growth grove.
Given the lifespan of a cacao tree is about 100 years, and trees were probably even older, the team quickly got to work, sourcing cuttings, grafting them onto young seedlings, and planting these seedlings in a protected area of the Jama-Coaque Reserve.
In total, they produced 21 clones of each tree, which resulted in 189 pure Nacional seedlings, which can now reproduce 5,000 Nacional progeny seedlings each year.
“We call it the Noah’s Ark of Ancient Nacional cacao,” Jerry says with a smile.
Since 2020, hundreds of seedlings have been distributed to To’ak’s farming partners, enabling them to play their part in reviving Ecuador’s famed heirloom cacao variety.
Breaking the chocolate mould
Jerry’s appreciation for cacao might have been born from its potential as a reforestation tool, but it very quickly morphed into an obsession with all-things chocolate.
When To’ak was founded back in 2013, many people were still treating chocolate “like a sweet that you buy at the candy shop, as opposed to something special, on par with a bottle of wine,” he explains.
“We really wanted to treat cacao beans the way winemakers treat grapes — from the production and packaging, through to the language we use when we talk about tasting.”
It’s this introduction of reverence to chocolate-making and cacao farming that has enabled To’ak to disrupt the very business models upon which the dessert’s industry has been built.
“Much of the global economy is misaligned with the interests of the forest, which is the main reason they've been so badly depleted,” Jerry tells me.
To’ak is diverging from this destructive status quo, with a business model that inherently supports the forest’s health and longevity.
The team has made headlines for selling the world’s most expensive chocolate bar, is completely transparent about how much they pay cacao farmers, gets experts to weigh in on the finest chocolate pairings and delights chocolate-lovers with their experimental and bold flavour combinations.
We must all “find a way to continue flourishing as humans without destroying our habitat”, Jerry explains. And To’ak is charting one such path forward.
The return of the forest
When it comes to reforesting degraded land, the process varies from site to site, Jerry tells me.
In fact, a mere half-kilometer between farms can make a huge difference to how the land responds, partly because of the variation in humidity and rainfall, and partly dependent on how it was previously used for agriculture.
“In some communities, the regeneration has been extremely rapid. Fruit trees and some of the shade trees are easily twice the size of a human after three years,” Jerry says, his excitement apparent.
“Then there is one valley in particular, which was much more heavily farmed, specifically for passionfruit, and a lot of chemicals were used. That's coming back slower,” he explains.
“More and more we are realising the importance of being wise when choosing which areas are most suitable for cacao, and putting our research resources there.”
When I ask Jerry just how much forest To’ak and the local community hope to restore, he says “it would be amazing if we could entirely connect these reforested areas through regenerative cacao”.
“But the main impediment,” Jerry admits, “is we would have to have a lot more cacao buyers to provide a market to support that.”
If the market does prove hungry, his dream is to secure 40,000 hectares of conservation area. This is an admittedly large expansion on TMA's existing 1,024-hectare reserve, but in light of the team’s work repopulating a long-forgotten species, I have little doubt they’ll make it happen.
In the meantime, the team is focused on “protecting as much forest as we can,” Jerry says. In addition, of course, to delighting the taste buds of chocolate enthusiasts all over the globe, validating a better way of doing business, and most importantly, empowering and employing people from five different Ecuadorian communities.
“It’s a living, breathing example of how businesses, conservationists, local farmers and chocolate consumers can join forces to help regenerate the rainforest, rather than cut it down,” he adds.