I read in The Tico Times this morning that a French competition awarded first prize for Latin America to a sample of cacao grown on a farm in San Carlos, Costa Rica. This does my heart good.
When my husband and I first arrived in Punta Uva in the late 1980s, the people here were suffering from the devastating effects of a fungal blight on their cacao trees. When the Moniliasis, or frosty pod rot, hit their crops in 1978, these Afro-Caribbean’s lives were changed irrevocably. No longer did they have the best chocolate in the world, demand and prices plummeted, and they abandoned their plantations letting the jungle grow over. This is how we came to buy our place.
When you talk to the older people in this area, they will likely tell you that the banana companies brought the monilia so they could take away their land. Whether it was that or one-hundred plus years of mono-cropping, the result was the same. The blight, it was felt, was permanent, and until a few years ago no one had been able to develop a resistant variety. It is a hit or miss crop.
Then people began to try different growing methods. According to an article I read a few years ago,“… rehabilitation efforts and those of 400 families in 14 villages stem from a World Bank-financed organic cacao and biodiversity project created and implemented by the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center (Spanish acronym CATIE, pronounced Kah’-Tee-Eh), headquartered in Turrialba, Costa Rica.” Before local farmers had planted from seed. This time the farmers were taught to graft new species onto existing rootstock. They were also trained in diversifying their crops so the land was more sustainable. Within a few years, they were getting reliable harvests from their cacao trees.
As expats have settled the area, once famous for its chocolate, they have also either grown the cacao themselves or become buyers of the indigenous tribe’s crops. New businesses have popped up in the area marketing organic chocolates and baked goods made from the new strains.
Before my husband and I built our house, we rented from a woman with a long history in the area. Her family and others like hers were the original cacao farmers. Miss Olga’s mother was born in Punta Uva. Her grandmother was born here, too. She now lives in Limón with a son as she will be 99 years old this February. She always told me she’d live a long life. “My mother lived to be 99 and 6,” she always said.
Olga’s coffee and cream complexion made her look more Spanish than black, and the lack of wrinkles made it hard for me to believe that she was in her eighties when we lived in that little rental house she owned. She wore her curly gray hair tied tightly against her head in two braids at the base of her neck. Olga had a great sense of humor and would flash her gold teeth when the joke was on, and her tales of how it was in Punta Uva when she was a child were a pleasure to listen to.
“You know when my family first come, there was nothing here. We just staked out the land we wanted and started growing things. My father and my mother, they had this place and they give it to me. They give the place you have now to my sister, Casilda, and they give my brother, Bai, the place on up there by Little Bay. Now there’s all manner people here I don’t even know anymore. In the old days we all knew each other, and we was family. I used to ride my horse from Manzanil to Ol’ Harbour, stop off at all the farms them for a drink. We had some good times.”
Outside her front door is the most beautiful Mango tree I have ever seen. It is over fifty years old; she knew, too, it because she remembered planting it. Its solid, twisted trunk divides off into five or six branches. The bare limbs twine up over the house some thirty feet, and a canopy of mango leaves and fruit created a wonderful umbrella of shade for her sea-green clapboard house. She often sat outside under that tree in the late afternoon, resting off after a day’s work.
Her favorite chair was made out of old rusty rebar welded together to form a frame. The plastic caning had long ago worn out. Instead, she fashioned some torn rags tied with some rope in places, some string in others. The cushion was made from an old pair of pants.
In all that, she had a way of holding herself that was regal. Sitting in that chair, her chin tilted slightly as though she were looking down on you, her legs crossed at the ankles, one elbow on the chair frame and her arm raised to express herself with those long bony fingers; she could easily be in any fashionable sitting room in any big city in the world.
She was no rube. She’d been to New York City to visit relatives, she’d been on an ocean cruise, and she’d traveled to the capital, San José, when she had to. She just preferred be on her farm.
Behind the house was an old cacao shed, a relic from the past— back when the pods rolled in and the money was flush.
She tore the drying shed down several years ago, and now it appears there just might be a viable crop again in Talamanca.