• Origin Spotlight: Fine Flavor Arriba Nacional cacao from Ecuador

December 15, 2017

The backbone of our flavored coconut mylk chocolate bars is a blend of fine flavor Arriba Nacional cacao from the Eco Cacao co-operative in the Costa Esmeraldas region of Ecuador, and cacao from the Oko Caribe co-operative in the Dominican Republic.

The Ecuadorian cacao we source is some of the finest flavored in the world, with notes of hazelnut and light red fruit and a beautiful floral finish. Like every supplier we work with, Eco Cacao contributes significantly to the prosperity of everyone in their collective by helping producers get higher pay for their fine quality cacao and by coordinating community land regeneration projects and knowledge sharing exchanges.

Beach at Finka Aekolado
The coast at Finka Aekolado, one of the farms where our Ecuador cacao is grown - Image from Finka Aekolado

What makes Arriba Nacional cacao so special?

Arriba Nacional is Ecuador’s national treasure. The term Nacional refers to ancient cacao genetics that have been cultivated in Ecuador for thousands of years by indigenous people. It is considered among the world’s finest flavor strains of cacao, and has a unique, strong floral scent. Attempts to grown Nacional trees outside of Ecuador have not produced the same flavor profiles, suggesting that terroir - environmental factors like climate and soil composition - play a large part in the exceptional flavor of Ecuadorian Nacional cacao.

Arriba means ‘upriver’, referring to a region along the Guayas river in the lowlands of Ecuador that is recognized for producing particularly fine flavored cacao. Technically, Arriba is a terroir label referring to cacao grown in the unique climate, sunshine, and soil of this fertile region. Costa Esmeraldas, where our cacao is grown, is in the north of this region (in red on the map of Ecuador below). Just as with wine, cannabis, and many other crops, the climate in which cacao is grown can have just as much of an effect on the flavor as the genetics.


Costa Esmeraldas region on a map of Ecuador


Indigenous Ecuadorians have cultivated cacao on stewarded wild lands for thousands of years. In fact, a recent archaeological study led by Francisco Valdez found ceramic pottery dated to 3300 BC containing traces of cacao - the oldest physical evidence of cacao use that we have access to at this time.

When the Spanish colonized Ecuador, they planted massive cacao plantations there, appropriating the land and ancient genetics that indigenous people were cultivating. By the 17th century, t he majority of cacao grown in Ecuador was shipped to Europe, where hot chocolate had become a popular drink among the elite. By the mid 1800s, cacao made up over half of Ecuador’s exports, and it was the world’s largest producer of cacao beans. The Arriba region of the Guayas basin, renowned for its particularly delicious cacao beans, was covered in massive Nacional cacao plantations.


Black and white images of cacao plantations in Ecuador

In 1916 and again in 1919, two unknown fungal diseases attacked the Nacional trees, decimating Ecuador’s cacao industry. In response to these disasters, farmers began planting hybrid species of cacao trees, and using irrigation, fertilizers, and herbicides to protect against future disasters and environmental instability - methods which hybrid trees could survive, but Nacional trees could not.

In the commodity based world cacao market, where a base price is set for a ton of cacao regardless of quality, it only makes sense to grown hybrid cacao trees, like the CCN51 clone popular in Ecuador. This clone is easier to grown and less prone to diseases, so it tends to produce higher yields. However, CCN51 cacao beans require tons of herbicides and pesticides to thrive, and do not have the same fine flavor as the Nacional beans.

Cacao growing plantation style in Ecuador

Cacao clones growing plantation style in Ecuador

Today, Ecuador is the world’s largest producer of fine aroma cacao (providing up to 70% of the world’s supply), while producing only 4% of the world’s cacao. As Ecuador becomes well known for its fine flavored cacao, more and more farmers are seeing growing native, better flavored genetics as economically attractive. And growing fine cacao in agroforestry plots requires far less land, capital, and labor than growing hybrid cacao plantation style, making it accessible for small farmers with less wealth, and in many cases allowing them to continue their traditional life-ways.

Nacional trees grown best in agroforestry systems, shaded by large trees, in soil nourished by a rich diversity of other plants and animals - like the wild jungle. By paying a higher price for fine flavor cacao in Ecuador, we help make it economically possible for farmers to use regenerative farming practices like agroforestry, which produce lower yields of higher quality cacao, and reverse the degeneration of the natural environment.


Cacao tree at Finka Aekolado

A cacao tree growing in an agroforestry system at Finka Aekolado - Image from Finka Aekolado


Growing small quantities of high quality and high value cacao is better for small farmers - A study in Bolivia by The Research Institute of Organic Agriculture FiBL published in 2017 found that, while cacao yields were higher in monoculture, the profits made from other crops grown along with the cacao in agroforestry more than compensated for the reduced cacao yield. They also found that return on labor was about twice as high in agroforestry systems as compared to monoculture systems, making cacao agroforestry the more profitable choice, even with smaller yields. 

The Ecuadorian cacao we use in our chocolate is grown in regenerative agroforestry systems along with cardamom, banana, yuca, tagua, vanilla, red palm, breadfruit, mame, zapote, mando, durien, breadnut, red palm and hundreds of other tropical fruits, which provide additional income and food for farmers, create shade for cacao trees and contribute to a rich soil environment.

We originally connected with our cacao farms in Ecuador through Gregory Landau, who works with a company called Terra Genesis that consults on regenerative agriculture projects around the world. In 2006 Gregory started working with the Eco Cacao co-operative, helping them use principles of agroforestry and permaculture to restore damaged landscapes and improve functional biodiversity and water systems on member's land. For an example of how regenerative agriculture principles are implemented on damaged land, check out this case study from a Terra Genesis project in which a colonial era sand quarry in Barbados was transformed into a food forest.


Multi-level agroforestry system at Finka Aekolado

Multi-strata agroforestry at Finka Aekolado - Image from Terra Genesis International

"The amount of carbon that could be sequestered from the adoption of Regenerative Agriculture across the globe can bring the levels of CO2 in the air down to a pre-industrial level - effectively reversing global warming." ~ Christian Shearer, COO of Terra Genesis

Gregory and Eco Cacao work to connect the farmers in their co-op directly with small and medium sized chocolate makers (like us), as well as local processors and markets in Ecuador. This bypasses the system of brokers and processors that most cacao sold through the world commodity market is traded through, in which farmers are paid next to nothing and the majority of the profits goes to middle-men. Many bean to bar chocolate makers, like ourselves, choose to pay a premium cost - often thousands of dollars per ton above the world market rate - to farmers for fine flavor Arriba Nacional beans, which economically justifies farmers growing and maintaining this finer flavor cacao.

Eco Cacao uses the premiums they make to re-invest in their producers and the regeneration of their land, leading to even higher quality in cacao in each harvest. This system also allows small makers to compete with global chocolate giants like Nestle by offering higher quality, better tasting chocolate that consumers know was produced ethically and sustainably.

And watch the video below of Gregory Landow explaining the types of capital available through regenerative cacao farming: