Posted in Uncategorized by leoniemilner on 19/03/2013

A Trip to TIPNIS



Territorio Indígena y Parque Nacional Isiboro Secure [Tipnis], has been recognised as protected indigenous territory since 1990. The people living within its colossal 1,091,656 hectares belong to the Tsimané, Yuracaré, and Mojeño-Trinitario peoples. Spanning between the Cochabamba and Beni Departments of Bolivia, it is land wild and rich with chocolatales. With three days away by boat to the nearest port of Trinidad, it is also somewhat faraway.

We had just arrived in Tipnis territory to buy chocolate, or, more precisely cacao – dry beans by the Arroba [11.5kg]. It is an annual trip for REPSA, a first for me and traveling to Tipnis, I soon realised how important the wild cacao harvest is to these communities.

Firstly, it is of interest to note, and admire, that the price paid for the beans has risen over 300% in the ten years that REPSA has been buying in this area. B$60-70 per Arroba, to the current B$260-270 [£1/€1.2 to B$11].  An impressive rise, brought about by a competitive and growing market. This is why we pay good money for a nice bar of chocolate.

The sale of cacao doesn’t just bring the obvious benefit of capital however – it brings people in boats from Trinidad, fully stocked with provisions of rice, flour, sugar, coca, cigarettes etc, all for sale or to exchange for a couple of arrobas of beans. It generally brings some excitement too, for both parties, a break in routine; I felt that.

Here again, similar to Tranquilidad, is a simple life, but stripped-down even more so. The people, by appearance, are healthier than their city dwelling contemporaries, fit and lean and it never felt more true that we all lead excessive lives in comparison. One thing that should be valued however is that we also have within reach, everyday certain things that allow us to develop as healthy human beings; a standard of education, which is often absent on the river, and calcium, which was never there in the first place, resulting in most adults having all but one tooth left. The incredible sugar consumption doesn’t help matters. You can travel to the most remote parts of this world and people will still know and desire Coca Cola – perversely impressive.

One community we visited had settled about 200 years ago on the banks of a secluded Laguna, leading off from the Isiboro River. It is called San Pablo – fairly well developed, it has a generator and a basic medical facility. A beautiful place and where it turns out, we brought most of the cacao. Word spread, as always I was told, and soon the boat was filling with beans and emptying of rice and flour.

‘12.03.2013: I made my bed on sacks of cacao as it looked quite comfortable and I was too lazy to tie my hammock. Terrible. Hardly slept – stupid idea. Find new place for bed tonight.’

If you have heard of Tipnis at all, it is most likely in connection with the contentious subject of a highway being laid through it, linking directly the Departments of Cochabamba and Beni for the first time. A major concern about the impact of the road is it’s contribution to de-forestation but projected estimates and percentages are conflicting and ambiguous. The status on the construction however, is forever changing and subsequently, so is the fate of Tipnis. If you would like to know more information, you can access it here. 

By the fourth day, the boat was heavy and full: 272.5 Arrobas; a mountain of sacks, smelling unbelievable, filled with beans dried by the Beniano sun. With no money left to buy anymore cacao during this trip, it was time to make the journey back to Trinidad. When we left, there were still so many mazorca [cacao pods] attached to the trees, bright yellow and standing out amongst the shade they grow so well beneath. For this reason, the boat will return to San Pablo once more, to purchase the last beans of the harvest, maybe in the coming week.

The ‘chocolate’ is something these people know very well; it is in their life like fishing and the wood of the land that they live on. It is apt then, that these wild beans are equally as special and intriguing as the people who harvest them. What a story.

Until next year Tipnis, Saludos, Leonie.

 International Cocoa Organisation– constantly follows and analysesthe world´s cocoa market.

 REPSA  Rainforest Exsquisite Products

Sources of information on the Tipnis Highway construction

Original Beans – making bars of chocolate with the Beni Wild Harvest.


3 Responses

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  1. Sally said, on 19/03/2013 at 6:04 pm

    Wow Leonie – this all sounds absolutely fascinating and the pictures are amazing!

  2. Elizah Leigh said, on 11/07/2013 at 3:26 pm

    Really very interesting. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. I found you via Chocablog — glad that I took the time to read!

    • leoniemilner said, on 11/07/2013 at 4:09 pm

      Hi Elizah. Thanks for taking the time to read the post in the first place – I appreciate it. I want people to understand a bit more about the importance of what goes on behind the scenes, without pushing it too much. Glad you enjoyed it. Spread the word! I hope to work some more harvests in the future and will carry on to document all on here. Thanks again! Leonie.

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