Most scholars pinpoint cacao’s origins to the rich landscapes of the Amazon: where the jungle nestles into the Andean foothills in Peru lies an abundance of native cacao diversity. Several of these Peruvian cacao varietals are classified as Fine Flavor Cacao (FFC) and are known around the world for their exquisite flavors when processed into single-origin chocolate. Yet, only 2.5% of Peru’s current cacao production is FFC (C2019 market baseline report, CIAT)—a figure that represents a serious lost opportunity. If native fine flavor cacao was upscaled to a larger portion of production, it would provide in situ conservation of an important genetic resource as well as greatly improve the livelihoods of rural Peruvian farmers. Pursuing these opportunities, Bioversity International launched the Fine Flavor Cacao project in 2017 out of its office in Lima, Peru. From the beginning, the project recognized that the challenges would range from technical to social, so the research started with study sites at 12 locations and a socioeconomic survey in the two most important native cacao regions of Peru—Piura, home to cacao blanco, and Cusco, home to cacao Chunco. While the farm studies are ongoing, the survey results are in.
FFC researchers found that Peruvian cacao farms face the same challenges as other agricultural communities around the world—namely, a looming problem of generational replacement and an overall lack of female empowerment. The average age of a cacao farmer in Peru is 54 years old (n=560) and the younger generation is not expressing particular interest in their parents’ work. Meanwhile, women’s participation in cooperatives, the main representative bodies for native cacao farming, is an underwhelming 18-25% (in Piura and Cusco, respectively). As the FFC project envisions that the ultimate recipients of its efforts to enhance the productivity of native cacao will be Peruvian farmers, it’s clear that empowering women and youth to take on more central roles is an important place to start.
In November 2019, researchers on the FFC project began the first phase of gender-specific engagement through focus groups led by Gesabel Villar, Diego Zavaleta, Marleni Ramirez, and Viviana Checarelli with women and young adults in the Cusqueñon towns of Quillabamba and Kiteni. Their aim was to better understand the self-perceptions, goals, and aspirations of these disproportionately underrepresented groups. They found that while women on cacao farms were clearly respected, their role was considered primarily supportive and domestic. Men were considered not only the head of the household, but also the primary holders of economic autonomy through primary ownership of farms. However, the focus groups also illuminated an exciting opportunity to promote women’s status in cacao growing communities. There was consensus across the groups that women could make significant contributions in technical activities that are important to production, like varietal selection, tree grafting and manual pollination, and in post-harvest practices, like quality control in drying and fermentation.