From coca to cacao

David Pacchioli
May 15, 2017

Mark Guiltinan and Siela Maximova work together all over the world. As co-directors of Penn State’s endowed cocoa research program — and husband and wife — the two have chased the chocolate trail from Ghana and Peru to Trinidad and Indonesia. Still, the email last January from Colombia came as a surprise.

It was from the U.S. ambassador, asking them to attend a meeting in Bogota in less than a week. Guiltinan and Maximova were wanted on a team assembling for a formidable task: to help poor Colombian farmers make the switch from growing coca, the stuff of cocaine, to growing cacao, the principal ingredient in chocolate.

Cacao for Peace, the initiative is called. It’s an outgrowth of the historic peace accord signed in November 2016 between the Colombian government and the leftist rebels known as the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, after 53 years of civil war.

In the jungles of rural Colombia, far from the reach of government institutions, the growing of coca — and the violence that envelops the enterprise — has swallowed a generation. For some poor farmers, devoid of opportunity, coca seemed the only option. Others were forced to grow coca and marijuana by the FARC, who used the drug trade to finance their operations. Families who resisted were extorted, murdered, driven from their land in staggering numbers: more than 200,000 dead and 6 million displaced over the long course of the conflict.  

For decades, the U.S. and Colombian governments have tried to stem this bloody tide by choking out illicit cultivation. The first approach was forced eradication of coca plants — basically, scorched earth. More recently, the strategy has shifted to promoting legal alternatives, or what the United Nations calls crop replacement. The end of hostilities brings new urgency to these efforts. Sustainable agricultural development is one of the pillars of the cease-fire document, seen by all parties as essential to Colombia’s hopes for a lasting peace.

Cocoa to the rescue

In many ways, cacao — a.k.a. cocoa — seems an ideal solution. The Amazon basin, a portion of which falls within Colombia’s borders, is the birthplace of Theobroma cacao (literally, the “food of the gods”). The country already produces some of the finest-flavored cocoa in the world. And with global demand for chocolate increasing all the time, the price of its raw material just keeps rising. Guiltinan thinks it could one day be as profitable to grow as coca. A legal crop with that kind of cachet would be a godsend for the country’s rural economy.

On the other hand, cacao is not easy to grow. The plant is finicky and disease-prone; it takes three to five years to produce a crop. Proper fermentation and drying of the beans after harvest is a nuanced art. To make cacao pay, in short, requires hard labor and more than a little know-how, yet around the world most of the stuff is still grown by small farmers with scant access to technology, training, or ready markets.

The ambitious goal of Cacao for Peace is to bridge that gap, or, as Maximova puts it, “to make cacao farming sustainable — profitable for farmers, instead of just a marginal activity.” The larger aim is to make Colombia into a major producer, like neighboring Brazil and Ecuador. Doing so, the thinking goes, would boost the world’s supply of high-quality cacao, and also benefit the U.S. chocolate industry.

"The goal is to make cacao farming profitable, instead of just a marginal activity."

There’s a precedent in a dramatic success story known as the Nebraska Mission. In the early 1960s, the newly formed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), looking for innovative ways to promote Colombian agriculture, put together a consortium of land-grant universities with technical and economic expertise. Those experts quickly fixed on floriculture as an opportunity waiting to happen. The result, decades later, is the billion-dollar Colombian export-flower industry that supplies most of the cut flowers sold in the U.S., and creates thousands of jobs in both countries.

“Cacao for Peace is a sort of reinvention of that approach,” says Michael Conlon, agricultural counselor for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Bogota. In the 21st-century version, USDA and USAID have created an international partnership that includes the U.N.’s Office of Drugs and Crime, the Peace Corps, a variety of Colombian agencies, and, crucially, three U.S. land-grant universities with experience in tropical agriculture. Purdue economists are analyzing the cacao value-chain, the processing steps that add value to the bean on its way to becoming chocolate. University of Florida social scientists are looking at cultural factors and rural development. Penn State was tapped for its prowess in the genetics and cultivation of cacao.

Boot camp in the jungle

On a steamy mid-morning in November, chickens amble through the yard behind the cinder-block headquarters of the farmer’s association in Dibulla, a small town along the rural two-lane highway that parallels Colombia’s Caribbean coast in the remote Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region. It’s the final week of Cacao Boot Camp, a Cacao for Peace pilot program organized by Guiltinan and Maximova with help from USDA, the U.N., and Fedecacao, Colombia’s cacao extension service.

Several factors favored the Sierra Nevada for this inaugural event. The area needed help: It was hard-hit by the civil war, its remoteness attracting illicit agriculture and discouraging, until recently, any government assistance. At the same time, it’s a region whose three main ports, Barranquilla, Cartagena, and Santa Marta, provide a sizeable export advantage. Tucked in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the world’s highest coastal range, it has soils and climate especially well-suited for growing cacao.

“Not to mention the genetic advantages,” Guiltinan says. The isolated Sierra Nevada are a biological paradise, home to the criollo blanco, the ancient cacao variety first domesticated by the Olmecs, Mayas, and Aztecs. Today, the white or “porcelain” bean is prized by chocolate experts around the world for its aroma and delicacy of flavor. So distinct is criollo from more common varieties that it was once considered a separate species.

The goal of Cacao Boot Camp, Maximova explains, is to “train the trainers,” a group of nine farmer-leaders representing three local communities that are already growing cacao, with varying degrees of success. These leaders, and the Peace Corps volunteers assigned to work with them, are getting a crash course in all aspects of cacao cultivation, taught by agents from Fedecacao and other experts. When they return home, they will teach their neighbors what they have learned.

It’s also a chance for representatives of all the Cacao for Peace partners to meet and interact, some for the first time. For the camp’s initial week, participants gathered in Santander, Colombia’s highest producing cacao-growing district, for a vision of what things could look like given better yields and productivity. This week they reconvene 300 miles to the north, in their home region, to apply themselves to the challenges they face.

Smiles are warm as we greet the local farmers. The Dibulla association includes 35 cacao-growing families, many of them previously displaced or shattered by violence. The program begins with a litany of fulsome introductions before the farmers and trainers break into groups. One group heads inside, where a Fedecacao expert is lecturing on Phytophthora and frosty pod and witches’ broom, the common diseases of cacao. Another group remains outdoors, where a buyer for Cacao de Colombia, a boutique chocolate maker, gives a talk on harvesting and drying.

The small yard teems with activity. A farmer seated on the ground is demonstrating the proper technique for opening a cacao pod. He snatches an oblong specimen from the red and yellow pile between his feet and taps the shell carefully, twice, with his machete, then pries the halves apart to reveal the pale pulp and beans inside. Nearby a woman prepares the communal meal, dropping chunks of fresh meat into a cauldron of boiling broth. The addition of potatoes, plantains, and rice will make the traditional stew known as sancocho.

After lunch, a facilitator coaxes the attendees into a circle for an icebreaker. “Part of the idea here is getting everyone to work together,” Guiltinan explains. “When we’re gone, they’re going to have to depend on each other.” Getting people together is a large part of what he and Maximova are doing for Cacao for Peace: fostering collaborations between partners and making sure growers can get the sustained technical assistance and the strong, disease-resistant cacao plants they will need to be successful.

"We have the culture of cacao, but there are some new things we don't know."

As the shy farmers begin to loosen up and laugh, the demographics are striking. There are grizzled old campesinos, some without shoes, and there are teenagers, with bright polo shirts, slick haircuts, and skinny jeans, but there aren’t many farmers from the war-torn generation in between. Two of the participating communities, Maximova notes, have chosen some of their youngest men to represent them, a gesture that makes her hopeful for their farming future.

Helmer, one of these young leaders, is 18, lanky and thoughtful. He tells of the farm in nearby Alto San Jorge where he and his family grow three hectares (about 7.5 acres) of cacao along with their other crops. “When we started, we didn’t know how valuable [cacao] was,” he says. Then the war came to their corner of Santa Marta, and Helmer and his family were forced from their land for three years. Now, two years after their return, they are working hard to reclaim it from the pests and diseases that took over in their absence. They hope soon to have 20 hectares planted in cacao. “I am the new generation,” he says, with quiet pride. “I’m here to learn, so that when my moment comes I’ll be ready.”

Down from the mountains

The Arhuaco, too, were chased from their homes. Indigenous to the Sierra Nevada, the Arhuaco are descendants of the ancient Tayrona people, and cling to the life of subsistence farming they have practiced for a thousand years. They regard maize and cacao as the gifts of their ancestors.

When the drug trade exploded in the 1980s, Arhuaco land was coveted, first for growing marijuana, later coca for cocaine. Facing intimidation, forced labor, even assassination, many Arhuaco fled into the highlands, where they maintained small family plots of cacao. These days, with the security afforded by an increased military presence, some Arhuaco are moving back down, and bringing their criollo with them.

At a small settlement near a town called Perico Aguado, Arhuaco from several villages gather for a boot camp workshop. Some 60 men, women, and children form a large semicircle in a packed-dirt clearing, grouped in clusters under a towering mango tree. Their traditional white clothing and pillbox hats contrast sharply with the green of the surrounding forest. Twenty paces away, a plain two-story building, nearly completed, stands as proof of the government’s new commitment to development. Constructed by the U.N. with funding from the Colombian government, it will be a much-needed cacao fermentation and drying facility.

Guiltinan and Maximova were introduced to the Arhuaco about a year ago, on their first trip to the region. They have met with the tribe’s leadership several times since. Arhuaco concerns are as basic as not having enough burros to get their cacao to market before it spoils, Guiltinan says. Yet they’re also eager to learn about plant genetics. “We’ve talked with them about putting together a science team to send into their schools.”

As the mamo, an elder and spiritual leader, bids us welcome, his lengthy speech is translated from the Arhuaco language, Ika, first to Spanish, then English. He invokes the tribe’s worldview, which holds that the Sierra Nevada mountains looming behind us are the center of the Earth. His people, he says, have a sacred duty to maintain the ecological balance that exists here. Then one of the younger leaders, a serene-faced man named Hernan, steps forward to tell of what he saw last week in Santander. Valuable technical knowledge, he calls it in Spanish. “We have the culture of cacao,” he says, “but there are some new things we don’t know.”

Though grounded in tradition, the Arhuaco are in some ways quite worldly. Many carry cell phones stashed in their mochilas, the bright woven pouches that hang from their shoulders. They are rapidly learning the value of marketing: Cacao de Colombia boasts of using only Arhuaco-grown beans in its world-class chocolates, and Hernan himself recently traveled to Japan to help promote the company’s products.

Today’s workshop, by Arhuaco request, is on pruning, a homelier but no less important topic. “Pruning is the most cost-effective thing these farmers can do to increase productivity,” Maximova says. Fedecacao trainers will demonstrate how to maintain a cacao tree’s proper height and structure, safely remove diseased pods, and allow the right amount of sunlight for pollination and growth.

Such hands-on instruction is a rarity here, Maximova says. “Fedecacao has not had much of a presence in this area before now,” she explains. The agency has only 128 agents to serve 40,000 cacao-growing families across Colombia, so most of its effort has been concentrated in districts that are less remote and better established.

One of the tasks that Maximoxa and Guiltinan have been assigned for the coming year is to help extend that reach. “It’s about capacity-building,” Maximova says. They have already identified modernizing the agency’s IT systems and its communications with farmers as two areas of need. Last week they invited Dan Tobin, an international development specialist at Penn State, to visit and make his own assessment. As the project goes on, Guiltinan says, they hope to involve other Penn State colleagues from various disciplines in order to develop a more comprehensive understanding of the unique challenges these farmers face. “We can’t just think about plants,” the plant scientist is fond of saying. “We need to think about plants, people, planet.”  

'Don’t leave us alone'

The final day of Boot Camp brings a throng of visiting dignitaries. Three gleaming white vans disgorge passengers at the community center in Vereda Aguas Frias, home of the Guardabosques of the Sierra Nevada.

Guardabosques (“forest keepers”) is a U.N.-supported program of the Colombian Ministry of Justice that offers funding and technical assistance to rural communities in exchange for a commitment not to grow illegal crops. Five years ago, under this program, coca and marijuana were eradicated from this area, and the community received a grant to replace them with cacao. Since then, however, progress has been slow. Droughts killed off many of the new plantings. A second grant promises an irrigation system, but as of now there’s only enough funding to reach 50 farms, of perhaps 300. “These farmers are struggling,” Maximova says.

U.N. experts maintain that cacao is a good option for this region, and that a successful turnaround here could be a model for the rest of Colombia. But the timing is critical. Coca production, which had declined steadily for the previous decade, has spiked again since the Colombian government stopped its forced eradication efforts in 2014. The peace accord includes a crop-substitution program supported by both sides, but continued cooperation will depend on farmers achieving measurable increases in productivity relatively quickly. Doing that will require a level of ongoing support that has so far been lacking — and one that Cacao for Peace hopes to provide.

On this day, at least, and here in the Sierra Nevada, success seems like a real possibility. Some of the farmers are wary, wondering whether the promised support will continue — “Don’t leave us alone” is a common refrain — but as they show their visitors what they have learned this week, most look determined and hopeful. At a final luncheon at the spectacular Tayrona National Natural Park, a representative of the government’s newly established Department of Social Prosperity captures the mood, calling what’s beginning to happen in Santa Marta “an example of already living in the post-conflict era.” Cacao, he says, “is a symbol of peace.”

"We did everything we set out to do. The important thing is to keep it going."

The following morning, headed back to the States, Guiltinan and Maximova are pleased and spent, but mostly just keen to maintain the momentum. They hope to start work soon with the U.N. and the Peace Corps to set up demonstration farms, important for diffusing best practices into the surrounding communities. A research symposium in Barranquilla will bring together cacao experts from all over North and South America. And later this year, the two will help lead a first-ever survey of the genetic diversity of cacao in the Sierra Nevada region. [See “Finding the Source,” below.]

There’s lots more in the works over the next five years. For now, though, as we head for the tiny airport at Santa Marta, it feels like Cacao for Peace has taken a solid first step forward.

“We did everything we set out to do,” Maximova acknowledges. “And I think we built up a lot of good will. The important thing is to keep it going.”


The story of chocolate begins with the ancient criollo, the cacao variety first domesticated by the Olmecs nearly 4,000 years ago. Recent research points to northern Colombia as criollo’s birthplace. But where exactly did it get its start? And how and when did it spread?

The answers may lie in the remote highlands of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a rugged biological paradise and home of the indigenous Arhuaco people. “This is a place where wild criollo trees can still be found,” says plant scientist Mark Guiltinan.

cacao volunteer

Peace Corps volunteer Karen Richards gets her first look at the white criollo bean. Prized for its flavor, the criollo is native to the Sierra Nevada mountains. 

IMAGE: Mark Guiltinan, Penn State

As part of the Cacao for Peace project, Guiltinan and Siela Maximova, co-directors of Penn State’s endowed cocoa research program, will join scientists of the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and its Colombian counterpart, CORPOICA, on an expedition to the Sierra Nevada to survey the genetic diversity of the cacao that grows there. Although some surveying has been done elsewhere in Colombia, the Sierra Nevada is uncharted territory.

“This is genomic science combined with geospatial mapping,” Guiltinan says. “By identifying and locating genetic diversity, we should be able to trace criollo back to its origins, and learn how it has evolved.” The team also plans to survey the region’s topography, soils, and social conditions. 

Much of the data collection and mapping will be done by students and faculty of the National Training Service, or SENA, a network of Colombian professional and technical colleges. Guiltinan hopes to outfit one of SENA’s research vehicles as a mobile lab and classroom. But some of the collection range will be too remote for that. “We’ll have to go by burro, or on foot, into some of these areas.”

The effort will be worth it, he says, and not just for understanding the story of cacao’s evolution. Mapping genetic diversity is important for conservation and plant breeding efforts, and could be critical to a new National Science Foundation study that he and Maximova are leading to identify the genes within cacao plants that are responsible for disease resistance. 

Cacao for Peace is an initiative of the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service, with funding from USAID. Partners include the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, the Peace Corps, the Colombian Agricultural Research Corporation (CORPOICA), the Colombian National Federation of Cocoa (Fedecacao), the Colombian National Training Service (SENA), and three members of the USDA Land Grant Universities consortium: Purdue University, the University of Florida, and Penn State.

This story first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Research/Penn State magazine and the May/June issue of The Penn Stater magazine.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017