Up close and personal with the cocoa agroforests of Belen de los Andaquies

A foggy landscape: View from an agroforestry cacao farm in Belen de los Andaquies, Caquetá, Colombia.

Eliza J. Villarino is a staff member in the IKI project "Implementing sustainable land use systems in Colombia" (SLUS). Here she reports on her trip to the Amazon rainforest, where she visited a cacao farm in an agroforestry system. 

A visit to one of the farms piloting sustainable land use: Victor Hugo Calderon, the coordinator of the IKI-SLUS project in the department of Caquetá, holds an unripe cocoa fruit.

Argh! I lost count of the number of times I winced as the vehicle carrying me and my colleagues from the SLUS Project team traversed through the rocky, unpaved roads toward Belen de los Andaquies, a town in the department of

Caquetá, on a day in early September. Rain poured, which was par for the course for a department that lies in the Amazon rainforest. Greenery enveloped Caquetá. Not all of it comprised forests though. Before arriving at Belen de los Andaquies, I saw hectares upon hectares of pastureland that nurtured cattle. I was aware of how cattle ranching areas supplanted forest land in Caquetá, so the sight didn’t come as a surprise to me.

But what awaited us in Belen de los Andaquies filled me with awe. Mingling with forest trees, cocoa crops rose on the slopes of the mountains in the Amazon jungle. I thought to myself, “so this is what a cocoa farm under an agroforestry system looks like.” Chickens roamed the farm, while red, wrinkly pods bearing cocoa beans hung from the branches drenched with rainwater. That meant the cocoa fruit had yet to ripen, according to Victor, our coordinator in Caquetá. 

Upon Victor’s prompting, we ate the creamy white meat enveloping the bean. I could only describe the taste as mildly sweet, because the flavour wasn’t something I could liken to anything I had tasted before.

A biofabrica is a structure used to make organic fertilizer. Some farmers in Belen de los Andaquies are pursuing organic certification due to a commercial partnership with a European chocolate maker.


At a corner of the farm and standing close to one another, several structures, mostly made of wood, piqued my curiosity. Placards attached to the side of the structures indicated in Spanish that they function as facilities for drying and fermenting the beans – the marquesina and cajon fermentador – as well as for making organic fertilizer, which came with the label biofabrica.

The presence of the marquesina and cajon fermentador suggests to me that the farm processes the beans according to the prescribed standards of quality. That’s good news because the farming household can maximise its income from selling the beans.

I say the above as someone who has been researching the cocoa value chain in Colombia. Here, some farmers would sell beans below those standards or en baba, partly due to a lack of capacity for doing so. That means, however, that the beans would command prices lower than what the market suggests. A representative of one company told me during an interview months ago that the firm offers “discounted” prices for beans that do not meet quality standards.

The smell oozing from the biofabrica suggested the presence of compost. According to Victor, the farmers we have been partnering with under the project were pursuing organic certification, prompted by a commercial partnership with a European chocolatier. 

Cocoa beans are dried in the marquesina of the farm piloting sustainable land use practices.


What followed the visit to the agroforestry cocoa farm served as another highlight of the field trip for me. I am referring to our conversations with farmers.

I can still remember the fresh, damp air – no doubt coming from the surrounding forest – that cloaked me as I sat down and talked with the farmers. I also remember their sense of pride at seeing wild, colourful animals visiting their farms, hence their conviction to conserve forests. One such animal is the crested oropendola, a black bird with a triangular beak, a yellow tail and a set of blue eyes. Turkeys, monkeys and armadillos would also stop by the cocoa farms.
In the context of farmers in Belen de los Andaquies, it became clear to me that money wasn’t the biggest incentive to adopt sustainable practices, i.e. deforestation-free agroforestry cocoa production and organic fertilisation. What they needed the most was technical assistance or training and knowledge on how to manage their farms in a manner that offers them profit and does not harm the forest.

When I asked them who gave them technical assistance, they were unanimous that until IKI´s SLUS Project came along, they received very little or no support at all. That sentiment gave me a feeling of pride as part of the project team.

Regulations that enable cocoa farmers in Colombia to secure technical assistance do exist. But getting access to that assistance is not as simple. In Colombia, part of the sale of cocoa must go toward the technical assistance of farmers. There’s a caveat though: The investment benefits the location where the sale of the cocoa takes place. It is not always the case that the registered sale reflects the department where the cocoa is produced. That’s because some farmers sell the beans to intermediaries, who then sell the beans to trading centres or companies in another department – most likely Santander, which produces the most cocoa in Colombia. This last transaction is the one that then gets registered.

Indeed, part of what we’re going to do is working with government officials and Fedecacao, the national federation of cocoa producers, which is responsible for providing technical assistance to their affiliates. We want to find ways to ensure that farmers in Caquetá have access to training and knowledge so they can optimise their earnings and sustain practices that do not damage forests but help the latter recover as envisioned by the stakeholders of the Colombian cocoa sector. 


We finally felt the sun’s presence as we exited the house of the last farmer we spoke to. At the end of that day, I felt the urge to go back because of the beauty I saw and the calm I felt amidst the surroundings. 

Truly, nature is beautiful. To some, agriculture represents the ugly enemy of the natural environment. But that doesn’t have to be the case.

Farmers can be guardians of nature if we give them the support they need, as we and the rest of the SLUS Project team aspire to do. 

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About the author

Ma. Eliza J. Villarino is a social scientist for Mitigate+, a zero-deforestation value chain expert under the Low-Emissions Food System research theme of the Alliance of Bioversity International and CIAT and member of the IKI-funded Sustainable Land Use Project in Colombia. A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Copenhagen, she explores the role of institutions, such as through incentives, in ensuring the environmental sustainability of agrifood value chains in conflict-affected settings. Eliza comes from a strong policy, journalism and science communication background.

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