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Afro-Caribbean Culture Flourishing with Cacao Groves

Sandra Esquivel y Carlos Borge*

By Inter-American Foundation on Comment

Talamanca is a multicultural and intercultural region located in the Caribbean Coast of Costa Rica. Here you’ll find indigenous people bribri, cabecar, teribe and ngöbe living together with Afro-descendants, Central Americans and foreign residents. The environment boasts extensive tropical forests, wide rivers and the Caribbean Sea. It’s a natural and cultural ensemble that attracts thousands of tourists annually. In this region, Afro-descendants have traditionally been located on the coast and indigenous people in the mountains but have always maintained an intercultural relationship due largely to cacao cultivation.

A bit of history

Costa Rican Afro-descendants trace their roots to Jamaica and the Lesser Antilles island chain. Many came to the country beginning in 1870 when they were brought to the coast of Baja Talamanca by a North American contractor named Henry Meiggs, in order to work on a railroad to the Atlantic coast.  The Afro-descendants worked on the first banana plantations. They founded and lived in large Afro-descendant communities and eventually formed towns such as Penshurt, Bordon, Bluff (now Cahuita), Home Creeck, Puerto Viejo, Cocles, Punta Uva, Manzanillo and Gandoca. 

Political upheavals throughout the 20th Century and environmental conditions took their toll on the main cash crop of bananas. Afro-descendants took to planting cacao on the former banana plantations along the railway line between the Port of Limón and Puerto Viejo. Between 1935 and 1979, cacao became the driving force behind the Talamanca economy, also emerging as an important axis in the Talamancan Afro-descendant culture.

Afro-descendants created a rich agroecological system called cacaotal, or cacao-culture. This idea is rooted in how to plant cacao. The trees don’t require fertilizers or chemicals, and they thrive in tropical climates like that in Costa Rica but do better planted under the shade of taller vegetation. Other plants and trees planted alongside the cacao help with crop diversity and encourage great biodiversity of tropical flora and fauna.

Cacao trees produce the first pods after three or four years and then about every six months.

As cacao integrated into the tropical forests and beach towns of the Caribbean coast, its identity as an Afro-descendant territoriality also grew. Today cacaotal has evolved from its status as an economic resource to an embodiment of the Afro-Caribbean way of life in these territories.

Similar to the troubled history of banana cultivation, there have been challenges. In 1979 the fungus Monilinia (Moniliophthora roreri) spread across the cacao groves of the Caribbean coast. In fewer than five years the disease all but wiped out cacao plantations, largely taking with it the Afro-descendant way of life that developed with them. Some farmers abandoned their lands and moved to larger cities in search of work. Others sold land to outsiders such as national and foreign tourist enterprises. A few families were able to resist and conserve their farms. The territory and the Afro culture of the coast fragmented as a result of the blight.

Modern-day resurgence of cacao

At present the Afro-Caribbean people who managed to maintain their properties are interested in reinvigorating the cacao plantations. In this spirit, the  Association of Organizations of the Talamanca Caribe Biological Corridor (ACBTC) presented a project to the Inter-American Foundation in 2014. Officially the aim is for the Afro-descendant population to develop agroecological systems in Talamanca as a tool to improve their quality of life and contribute to the conservation of the environment. Unofficially the families that make up the project succinctly and affectionately call it el Proyecto Cacao Afro, or the Afro-Cacao Project.

Edgar Campbell and other producers practice grafting techniques.

The ACBCT comprises more than 12 indigenous, Afro-descendant, farmer, commercial and tourist organizations dedicated to conserving the tropical forests that form a huge biological corridor in the region. The project supports 25 families that have taken on the task of rehabilitating their cacao farms — many having been abandoned for 30 years — using the traditional cacao culture with the modern twist of new plant varietals and updated technical practices.

One of the ACBTC leaders of this process is retired educator Edgar Campbell, who says that the program is on the way toward meeting its goal of at least 50 hectares planted and producing roughly 20 tons of cocoa per year. Incorporating new methods that are less prone to plagues of the past has not been a problem for the modern Afro-descendant farmers of the region, largely due to their enthusiasm.

”The truth is, cacao is in the DNA of our people,” Campbell says. “Although the endeavor has been great, everything has been relatively easy."

Campbell says that working with other Afro families on merging agroecological techniques on the cacaotal are providing great successes. The project aroused interest in the production and future commercialization of cacao. The small-scale farmers he works with plant more cacao than planned and rehabilitate other areas of their farms for future use. They successfully incorporate new techniques such as grafting and continue to make progress by introducing other crops on their farms.

Dry cacao ready to be processed into delicious products.

Commercial success of cacao

The ACBTC community members sell their cacao at fair-trade prices to produce organic chocolates locally. They are also beginning to commercialize other products that make up this complex polyculture system. These products include banana, yucca, yam, ginger, timber, citrus and medicinal plants grown among the cacao. Some families are moving even further. For example, they want to create enterprises that promote guided tours as part of community rural tourism in the land of the cacaotal.

The rebirth of cacao in the region is culturally reinvigorating for Costa Rica. Families remember what they learned from their grandparents about the cacaotal, and they complement those stories with new ideas. Campbell's personal objective is to turn his farm into a field laboratory. This laboratory would allow ACBTC to explore how to add value to the agricultural products produced with cacao so that the management of farms eventually becomes profitable. For now the goal is to achieve sustainability during this period of experimentation.


Organic chocolate produced in the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.

Full of emotion, Campbell explains how the cacaotal is again creating a new life and community among neighbors in the same way cacao allowed for a dignified way of life for his ancestors. It allows the community to establish ties of deep friendship and mutual collaboration among families. He links the experience of this farm rehabilitation initiative with a more macro-sociopolitical project that he calls “the cultural revitalization of blackness.”

“With this cacao rehabilitation, a process of re-ethnicity of the Caribbean Afro-descendants of Costa Rica is revitalized,” he said. “It puts them face-to-face with their cultural history and projects them as a people with pride.”
*Sandra Esquivel and Carlos Borge are consultants of the Sociedad De Estudios Para El Desarrollo Rural (Seder), an organization that evaluates projects for the Inter-American Foundation in Costa Rica.
** Photo 2 is courtesy of ACBTC and photo 4 is from Caribeans/Paul Johnson

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