13th of June 2023
This is the story of how a rainforest conservation organization (TMA) gave birth to a chocolate company (To'ak). It also tells the story of how this relationship is being used to help restore the Pacific Forest of Ecuador. It is a living, breathing example of how businesses, conservationists, local farmers, and chocolate consumers can join forces to help regenerate the rainforest rather than cut it down.
The Chocolate-Rainforest Relationship
Chocolate has a tricky relationship with tropical forests. On the one hand, cacao trees are a creation of the rainforest—specifically, the Ecuadorian rainforest. They are naturally adapted to grow in the understory of the tropical forest. For this reason, cacao trees can be a key element in rainforest restoration.
On the other hand, vast swaths of tropical forest have been cleared to make way for monoculture cacao plantations. During the last twenty years, it is estimated that 2.4 million hectares of forest have been replaced by cacao trees in the Ivory Coast alone. The very treasure that came from the rainforest has now become one of its many threats.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Years before the birth of To’ak, I also co-founded an Ecuadorian rainforest conservation organization called Third Millennium Alliance (TMA). It was through my work as a rainforest conservationist that I first encountered cacao trees. That’s where my obsession with chocolate first began.
In recent years, this relationship has come full circle. Now, To’ak chocolate is helping drive TMA’s rainforest conservation mission.
The Most Endangered Rainforest on Earth
In 2007, my TMA comrades and I created a rainforest preserve called the Jama-Coaque Ecological Reserve in coastal Ecuador. Hidden within the expanse of this wilderness were several abandoned cacao groves overgrown with native vegetation.
From these trees, we started making chocolate by hand in our so-called Bamboo House—a rustic and decidedly off-the-grid research station we built in the middle of the Reserve.
With this as our headquarters, we sought to protect and restore one of the last surviving remnants of the Pacific Forest of Ecuador—arguably the most endangered rainforest on earth. Only 2% of it remains.
The lens-fogged photo below captures the three TMA co-founders—Bryan Criswell and Isabel Dávila and I—camping in the Jama-Coaque Reserve in 2008. This pre-dated the Bamboo House. At this point, we didn't even have a roof to sleep under.
In the course of our work, we quickly recognized the value of cacao trees as a forest restoration tool. We started working with our neighbors to plant cacao trees, combined with a wide variety of other fruit trees and native trees, on depleted agricultural lands. This became the basis for what is now our region-wide Regenerative Agroforestry program.
What started out as a reforestation tool quickly became an obsession with cacao farming and chocolate making. In 2013, I co-founded To’ak Chocolate along with Austrian design specialist Carl Schweizer and his Ecuadorian wife and social impact entrepreneur Dennise Valencia.
Luxury Chocolate and Activism
From the outset, we had a few radical ideas about how chocolate should be sourced, produced, and consumed. We saw how people treat wine as an epicurean delicacy and regard winemaking as the noblest of artisanal crafts. Why shouldn’t chocolate—and cacao farming—be accorded the same reverence and standards of excellence?
To’ak soon went on to make waves in the chocolate industry by launching a $265 bar of chocolate—much to the shock (and in some cases, chagrin) of our industry colleagues. For better and for worse, To’ak quickly became known as the "most expensive chocolate in the world."
But TMA and rainforest conservation continued to be my life's work. And from the beginning, the entire team at To’ak embraced this mission as an element of our company. While To’ak’s public image was formed by articles published in Forbes and Fortune, behind the scenes we were (and still are) a handful of activists. This is something that most people still don’t understand about To’ak. I guess it’s part of the reason I’m writing this article. To dispel a few myths.
Chocolate and Conservation: A Symbiotic Relationship
To be clear, TMA and To’ak are separate entities. TMA is a non-profit conservation organization and To’ak is a private enterprise. But both are based in Ecuador, and they share a co-founder and an ethos. They also both work intimately with cacao trees.
The working relationship began in 2018 with a program to protect an ancient cacao variety from extinction and begin to reproduce it. We sourced cuttings from old-growth Ancient Nacional cacao trees in Piedra de Plata—which were DNA-verified to be 100% pure—and grafted them onto young seedlings. The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, INIAP, and a local university called ESPAM also provided key support.
These seedlings were planted in a protected area of the Jama-Coaque Reserve, which we call the Genetic Bank. It is now Ecuador’s largest repository of a historic cacao variety previously believed to be extinct.
National Geographic and the Smithsonian have both come to visit and document this project. The trees have since learned to pose for the camera. They are actively managed and cared for by TMA.
Working With Local Cacao Farmers
The next step was to continue to reproduce these cacao trees and distribute them to local farmers as part of a Regenerative Agroforestry program. TMA uses cacao trees, combined with a wide diversity of other fruit trees and native shade trees, to restore forest on degraded land. The project is managed by TMA and funded entirely by grants and private donations.
We’re currently doing this with local farmers in five communities that live in the buffer zone that surrounds one of the last remnants of the Pacific Forest. This is a key component of TMA’s dream to build a 40,000-hectare conservation area called the Capuchin Corridor.
The critical factor that convinced local farmers to reforest their land is the premium prices they will be paid by To’ak—and other premium chocolate makers—for their cacao. Market economics is what keeps this wheel spinning.
This is an example of how businesses, conservationists, and local farmers can join forces to help regenerate the forest rather than cut it down. We call this program Regenerative Cacao. It’s a joint initiative between TMA and To’ak. To learn more, see how we are using cacao to reverse deforestation.