Costa Rican and asylum-seeking women come together to save cacao plantation
Things were looking bleak for Vicenta González, the 73-year-old owner of a cacao plantation in northern Costa Rica, near the border with Nicaragua.
Several years ago, the waters of a nearby river spilled over, flooding her property. And to make matters worse, many of the more than 1,000 cacao trees that dot her densely forested land had been hit by a blight that spoils their valuable seed pods – the raw ingredient for chocolate.
Vicenta, her husband, their two biological and five adopted children had stewarded the 18-hectare plantation in Costa Rica’s northern district of Upala for decades. But the couple’s brood had long since grown up and scattered, and Vicenta’s husband had suffered a devastating illness shortly before the double whammy of flood and blight.
Alone on the plantation, with a bad knee, Vicenta could not see a path forward until one day in 2015 she attended a training course, run by a local NGO, on preventing domestic violence.
There, she and several of the other participants struck upon an idea: they would band together to tend to the plantation, making and selling chocolate and other products derived from cacao. The profits would be divvied up between them, allowing the members to help provide for their families in an area where much of the land has been turned into vast pineapple plantations and steady jobs are scarce.
An all-women’s cacao cooperative was born, which they named Cacaotica – a mashup of the Spanish words for cacao and “Tica,” the common way of referring to someone or something from Costa Rica. Most of its 10 members are survivors of domestic violence. They include local Costa Rican women and women refugees from Nicaragua who fled widespread persecution following a wave of anti-government protests that started in 2018.
“Being in the cooperative has shown us that we have the skills to succeed.”
“It’s heartbreaking to see the women who are arriving from Nicaragua,” said Vicenta. “They arrive with nothing and are extremely traumatized and afraid.”
She herself moved to Costa Rica from Nicaragua some 50 years ago, after her Costa Rican husband sold her on the idea of running a farm together. While her own move was made for love, Vicenta has a long history of helping refugees from her country. During Nicaragua’s civil war in the 1980s, she opened her home to those fleeing into Costa Rica. And in the aftermath of the 2018 protests, which have seen more than 120,000 Nicaraguans seek refuge in Costa Rica, she did so again.
Working together, the women care for the trees, cutting off beans that show the telltale stains of blight, and harvesting the ripe yellow ones. They shun chemical fertilizers and pesticides in favour of natural alternatives, such as a nutrient-rich compost made from cow patties from the small herd of cattle that wander the property, as well as from the bean husks and dead bark and leaves shed by the cacao trees themselves. Their efforts have won the cooperative organic certification, which allows their products to fetch a better price.
“We use absolutely all of the pod,” said Vicenta, adding that in addition to classic chocolate bars, the collective makes products such as chocolate toffee, cacao-butter lip gloss, and hand lotion. All of them are concocted in the kitchen inside Vicenta’s wood-frame farmhouse, pending the completion of a proper workspace the group is currently building.
In addition to a modicum of financial security, the cooperative is giving its members a newfound sense of empowerment. Dara Argüello, a 35-year-old Costa Rican who joined the cooperative a few years ago, said being in a group where women not only do all the work, but make all the decisions, has dramatically improved their feelings of self-worth.
“Being in the cooperative has really shown many of us that we have the skills to succeed and to be leaders,” said Dara, adding that “it has also shown many of us who have been really affected by machismo that there are other ways of living.”
“We’ve all helped each other.”
The group has also learned that together they are stronger. They have chipped in to help with the fees that the asylum-seeking members must pay periodically to have their documents renewed, Dara said. The group also comes together to attend workshops on everything from violence prevention to leadership.
It was after taking part in a workshop for budding entrepreneurs, run by Fundación Mujer, a partner of UNHCR, the United Nations Refugee Agency, that Cacaotica’s members began selling their products at markets throughout Costa Rica.
Their hard work was just starting to pay off, and the women were beginning to bring home modest but regular earnings, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Markets shuttered amid lockdowns that also made it all but impossible for members of the group to reach Vicenta’s plantation.
“The pandemic was very, very hard,” Vicenta recalled. “We lost most of our products and even lost some members who dropped out because they became so discouraged by the situation. We’ve essentially had to start over from scratch.”
Initially, they responded by tweaking their business model, selling cacao saplings in response to the lockdown-driven surge in demand for houseplants. But since the easing of restrictions, they have slowly but surely rebuilt their stocks of chocolate bars and beauty products, which they are now aiming to place in high-end hotels across Costa Rica and beyond.
“They’ve really helped me,” said Vicenta of her co-workers in the collective before shaking her head and adding, “Actually, I suppose we’ve all helped each other.”