ARAPIXI NATURE RESERVE, Brazil, June 14 (Thomson Reuters
Foundation) - W ith a cigarette in one hand and a muddy machete
in the other, Brazilian grandmother Maria Nobre de Oliveira
thinks high-end chocolate will help end the epidemic of
deforestation ravaging Amazon communities like hers.
Her community of a few dozen residents live in hand-built
wooden houses with no electricity or running water in the
world's largest rainforest, more than six hours by river boat
from the nearest town in Brazil's southwestern Amazonas State.
Residents in isolated Amazon settlements say they have few
opportunities to make a living other than clearing land to raise
cattle - part of the reason why Amazon deforestation rates in
Brazil shot up 29 percent last year after years of decline.
As well as villagers clearing land to feed themselves, large
ranchers and speculators have been trying to invade the Arapixi
nature reserve where Oliveira lives to cut down trees, an
official with Brazil's environment ministry said.
But residents of the reserve have new ally to help them
protect the trees - chocolate.
"This is virgin forest," Oliveira, 62, told the Thomson
Reuters Foundation as residents used long poles to knock cocoa
beans - the base ingredient for chocolate - from the reserve's
"Some guys came to cut the trees down a while back - but we
told them to get lost," Oliveira said, as other farmers carried
fresh cocoa beans to dry in the sun.
"If we had let them, we wouldn't have an income source...
cocoa helps us protect the forest." Farmers in the nature
reserve work with a local cooperative in Boca do Acre that
manages the sale and export of the cocoa.
FINDING A BALANCE
Finding a balance between employment for local people and
protecting Amazonian forests has long stumped policymakers.
Every minute, forests larger than two football fields are
felled in the Amazon, according to the former director of
Brazil's forestry service.
Brazilian officials say projects like the cocoa co-op are
helping residents make a living from the land while moving away
"These cocoa projects come from the community, we are a
partner with them," said Abilio Ikeziri, an official at Brazil's
environment ministry, responsible for protected areas.
The income also helps locals keep the ranchers and land
scammers out of the reserve, Ikeziri said.
"I am the only (official) responsible for looking after 1.5
million hectares (15,000 km sq) of land - it is impossible
(without local help)," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Communities living in the reserve and making a living from
sustainably harvesting plants like cocoa that grow naturally
makes it easier for over-stretched officials to defend the land
from speculators, the official said.
In the Arapixi reserve, residents used to harvest cocoa for
their own consumption and began selling it to a cooperative 10
Last year they exported more than 10 tonnes of natural cocoa
to Europe which earned the co-op about 130,000 reis ($39,000), a
decline from previous years due to poor weather.
Once it arrives in Germany the cocoa is refined into
high-end, environmentally certified chocolate.
Based in the Amazon river port of Boca do Acre the co-op
employs more than 400 people, including a dozen in Dona
Oliveira's community, said manager Jose Geraldo Tranin.
"Before we launched the co-op, many people were deforesting
land for cattle," Tranin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in
the co-op's sparse one room office in Boca do Acre. "Now people
know cocoa will generate some income so they are preserving the
With help from German social entrepreneurs who provided
money to buy boats and other capital for the co-operative to get
started, reserve residents like Oliveira were given training in
cocoa production and tools to better harvest and transport the
"The co-op wants to expand, so that is good for us," said
52-year-old farmer Jose Freitas, taking a break from racking
cocoa beans over a metal grate in the sun.
BACKED BY RESEARCH
Residents can earn up to 1,200 reais ($365) per month in the
busy season preparing the beans for export - a decent salary in
a region beset by poverty - although it means working seven days
"We can buy more food now," Freitas said. "I could even
afford to make the trip to the hospital."
For European consumers, their chocolate is branded as "wild
cocoa of Amazonas".
The project has had a clear impact on forest preservation
in Arapixi compared to similar Amazon reserves, said Francidalva
Oliveira de Souza, a researcher at the State University of
Amazonas studying the project.
"Deforestation has been decreasing in this reserve," Souza
told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
"This sort of project could be expanded to help preserve
other areas and help residents earn an income."
Travel support for this reporting was provided by the
Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ).
($1 = 3.3059 reais)
(Reporting by Chris Arsenault @chrisarsenaul, Editing by Ros
Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the
charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian
news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate
change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)