Joel Palacios says he used to have it all — a well-paying government job that let him travel across Colombia, the respect of everyone he encountered. "Everywhere I was 'el doctor Joel,' " he says — doctor being an honorific commonly used to denote respect in Latin America.
But then, he shocked friends and family by quitting his plum job at the Ministry of the Interior working on behalf of Afro-Colombians. "I stopped being 'doctor Joel,' " he says. Instead, he sold his belongings and, in 2010, moved to the rural Chocó department of Colombia.
In many ways, though, his mission remains the same: improving the lot of Afro-Colombians in Chocó, a vastly ignored and underdeveloped region along the Pacific Coast with a majority-black population. About 60 percent of the people here live below the poverty line, and many farmers make ends meet by cultivating coca plants, the leaves of which are used to make cocaine.
Palacios grew up in this region, the son of a poor rural farmer, and he says he wants the people here to see their economic future in a different cash crop: cacao, which he turns into artisanal chocolate bars and sells at a premium in the Colombian capital, Bogotá.
"When our project started, it was going to be called 'Más Cacao, Menos Coca,' " Palacios says — more cacao, less coca. He says all told, it has taken seven years to get to the point where enough Chocó farmers are growing cacao to supply his chocolate company, which is now a year old.
He says he always knew he would return to Quibdó, "to do something for my river," Palacios says. He says in the early 2000s, people were displaced by the war. Some left for Colombia's big cities. But now people have returned, and his company depends on them.
"It was always in me to return there after I finished my career and work with them," he says. "Each time I traveled to Chocó, I would see people in the airport had a little bag of Dunkin' Donuts that they'd take to give away, but when they'd return, no one brought anything with them" from Chocó, Palacios recalls.
That's despite ongoing fumigation efforts and a program Colombia's government set up to pay farmers to voluntarily give up growing coca. The program was part of the terms of the 2016 peace treaty ending a half-century of war between Colombia's government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — which controlled much of the country's cocaine business. More than 83,000 families have enrolled in the program, but the government now says funding is tight.
The peace treaty was signed by former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. His successor, President Iván Duque, has shown far less enthusiasm for the terms of the peace accord. At a recent press conference, Emilio Archila, a post-conflict adviser to Duque, warned, "The country should be clear about the difficulties caused by the excessively generous promises and lack of planning and financing of these commitments."
That's left farmers like Francisco Ramírez feeling forgotten by the Colombian government. Until recently, Ramírez lived off of his 7 acres of coca.
"You could put your children through school" by growing coca, says Ramírez, who is black and lives in Chocó. "Education here is expensive — the matriculation fee, the uniform cost, the notebook and pen. At school the teacher said to bring such and such thing, so we had to sacrifice to provide it."
Ramírez walked away from coca after the peace treaty — not because of government payments but out of fear. The FARC guerrilla group disarmed and left this region after the peace accord was reached. But Ramírez feared that coca crops would attract other armed groups involved in narcotrafficking that are still active in Chocó — and violence tends to follow them. He also worried the government would wipe out his coca crops through fumigation.
"We don't want to grow more coca," Ramírez says. "They should give us a project to replace coca and survive on. Especially for those of us who've been displaced" by war.
Palacios wants Chocó farmers like Ramírez to know that he has not abandoned them. And he has spent the past seven years setting the stage to help farmers transition to cacao — a process made more difficult by the remoteness of Chocó, a region so poor that communal toilets are the norm and cellphone reception is often nonexistent.
Growing up in Chocó, Palacios says, he would often climb trees to harvest cacao pods. So when Palacios first moved back in 2010, he had visions of sourcing all of his chocolate from the region. But he soon saw this would be "nearly impossible," he says — "because there wasn't enough cacao."
"The plantations were in total abandon," he recalls. "We didn't have technical knowledge — how to manage the harvest, how to make it more productive or how to control diseases. We'd only collected what nature, in its generosity, would leave for us."
So Palacios turned to the National Cacao Producers Federation to learn chocolate cultivation skills and traveled to western Colombia to learn from cacao growers there. And then, he set about sharing his newfound knowledge. In 2011, with the help of loans and his own savings, he purchased an abandoned plot of land just outside Quibdó, Chocó's capital, and set up a chocolate training center.
Most Chocó farmers live in riverside communities far from Quibdó and must travel there to sell their crops — by wooden motorboat, because the villages lack roads. The journey can take up to seven hours, and farmers will usually end up spending six to eight days in Quibdó while they wait to sell their produce.
"They had nothing to do and they had free time, so I thought, 'Let's grab them in Quibdó where they could see, [train] and listen to us,' " Palacios says. "We could teach them everything."
At the school, farmers learn to grow modified cacao trees that have shorter trunks (so pods on the branches are easier to reach and cut off) and to manage pests and diseases that attack the fruit. They also learn about fertilizers, drying, fermenting and packaging.
In mid-2016, Joel Palacios left Chocó for seven months to journey halfway across the globe to New Zealand. There, he picked up English and apprenticed with a chocolate-maker, learning how to make artisanal bars with the cacao beans he was teaching his community to produce.
The school that Palacios founded is now run by the Quibdó Municipal Association of Cacao Producers, which he helped to create. "You have to get there, work with them and support them, but there's a moment you have to let them work on their own," Palacios says. "When I stepped away, they had to see and believe that they can do it on their own. Now, aside from me, they have other clients." The group has 123 active members who grow cacao. They don't get paid to study at the school, but the association can get them a better rate for their cacao.
Last year, Palacios launched Late Chocó, his own artisanal chocolate company based in Bogotá. The association sells Late Chocó almost 1,000 pounds of cacao per month during the harvest season — which stretches from October to January.
"One kilo of cacao earns about 5,500 to 6,000 pesos [or about $1.75], but we could earn 8,000 pesos" — or up to $2.50, says Edson Mosquera, one of the teachers at the school they call CREA, which means "create" in Spanish. Mosquera is an agricultural engineer in Quibdó.
Mosquera says he is looking for funding to acquire a gas-powered cacao seed dryer, which would help them boost their earnings. "We use solar light as much as possible to dry the seeds, but when rain is a problem, a gas dryer would speed up the process and keep the cacao from getting ruined," Mosquera says. A dryer would allow the growers to control humidity, resulting in a better-quality bean that could command a higher price, he says.
The association sells mostly to Late Chocó and also to a big chocolate manufacturer called CasaLuker.
Chocó is a world away from Bogotá, and Joel Palacios hasn't been able to return since launching his company last year. When I visited Chocó this October, I met Joel's father, a cacao farmer named José Palacios, and handed him some Late Chocó chocolate bars. He smiled — it was the first time he had seen them. The wrappers, designed in tribute to Joel's parents, bear an illustration of José Palacios wearing his customary wide-brim hat.
José Palacios says life in Chocó has improved since the signing of the peace treaty. "People don't live with that tension and anxiety," he says. "People live with more calm."
He proudly shows me the cacao trees on his property. He removes the sweet, white pulp from the seeds, piles the seeds into a wooden container to ferment for almost a week and then lays the seeds out to dry beneath a plastic cover.
Most of his seeds go to Late Chocó, his son's storefront and manufacturing site. Palacios sells expensive chocolate bars. They have five ingredients at most, and cost 15,000 Colombian pesos on average, or about $5 each. Late Chocó targets high-end consumers who seek gourmet chocolate without sugar. Joel Palacios uses the profits to help fund the cacao school and offer farmers a better rate per pound than they get from buyers in Quibdó.
People who buy Late Chocó chocolates know they are helping farmers get off coca and supporting development in a community displaced during the war.
"The only way to guarantee that this lasts is to get a good-quality product," Palacios says. "Projects in Chocó fail because the [nongovernmental organizations] go and donate money and leave. I went and got them in this cacao project — it's all of our project."
This story was reported with support from the Pulitzer Center.
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