Featured photo: Pictured in this courtesy photo are Good Stuff Cacao owners Samantha Mietling (left) and Barbara Mietling (far right) are working with VASI project leaders Nancy Dammann and Edgardo Pisco Gomez to launch development projects in Peruvian Amazon and bring great chocolate to Michigan.
Can a chocolate connection between growers in the Peruvian rainforest and purveyors of fine chocolate in Michigan make a difference to people in Amazonia struggling for a sustainable way to live?
The answer is a resounding “Yes,” according to Charlevoix’s Nancy Dammann, a member of the team of rural community leaders, students, and Peruvian, American, other South American, and European scientists who lead Visión Amazónica para la Sostenibilidad Integral, Amazonia Vision for an Integrated Sustainability (VASI.)
“The project involves rigorous scientific research on issues that are relevant to both Peru and Michigan, especially the Great Lakes, which like the Amazon constitute one the world’s major bodies of fresh water,” said Dammann.
“There is increasing conversation about climate change. The work we will be doing will both study the effects of climate change and potential adaptations to deal with it, and through the agroforestry directly contribute to mitigating it–growing healthy, productive forests (that will capture carbon) and creating sustainable legal alternatives (decreasing activities that contribute to climate change). This is how chocolate plays an important role.”
Dammann is a conservation biologist who began researching conditions in the poorest parts of the Peruvian Amazon as a Harvard undergraduate in 1996 and continued through her PhD at Columbia.
She joined the effort to work with nine rural Amazonian communities to create legal and sustainable projects.
According to Dammann, chocolate is the centerpiece of a three-pronged project involving planting and harvesting of sustainable crops, serious scientific research in poorly understood areas of Amazonia, and scholarships to enable students to continue studies beyond the small rural schools.
The concept of direct importation of cacao from Amazonia has caught the attention of several Michigan chocolatiers including Just Good Chocolate of Leelanau, Grocers’ Daughter of Empire, and Good Stuff Cacao of Metamora.
“The VASI cacao project comes at a opportune time,” said Jody Hayden, owner of The Grocer’s Daughter. “The world demand for quality cacao continues to outpace supply and if the project succeeds in building a successful exporting business, both producers and chocolate-makers stand to benefit.”
She added, “More and more, consumers want to know that their chocolate purchases are supporting small farmers and VASI intends to make this integral to their work. As a chocolate-maker committed to fair trade practices, we applaud VASI for their efforts.”
Chocolate is an integral part of the project’s agroforestry plan that will combine direct exportation of organic, wild, and heirloom varieties of cacao, along with local fruits, traditional crops, and rare and ecologically important tropical hardwoods.
“People in rural Amazonia are marginalized and live in extreme poverty,” said Edgardo Gomez Pisco, former governor of the District Sarayacu, in which the nine communities lie.
Gomez said the extreme poverty often forces people into dangerous and illegal fishing and logging as well as drugs in order to sustain their families.
“Amazonia is not well studied or understood,” said Javier Del Aguila Chavez, research biologist, professor at the Scientific University of Peru, and member of VASI’s coordinating team.
According to Gomez, “Less than 15 percent of students who graduate from local schools are able to go on to any form of higher education, and those that do have no jobs to return to. We plan to change that.“
VASI grew out of several years of conversations between community residents, students and Dammann.
Before VASI launched, Gomez, del Aguila, and a number of students from the communities met with community leaders, and then participated in community wide meetings to assess the broader interest in such a project and develop its details. Enthusiasm was high, and VASI grew out of those meetings.
To make the Michigan connection, Gomez and Dammann met with the local chocolatiers.
“We met with chocolatiers in February and then again over the past summer before we returned to Peru,” Dammann said. “And, in Lima, we have been reaching out to leading Peruvian chefs and chocolatiers.”
With the backing of Amazonian communities, the interest of the chocolatiers, and the support of a growing network of scientists, VASI was launched in mid-January.
“Our goal is that, within five to seven years, VASI will become self-supporting, generating income that helps increase the farmers’ quality of life and community health, and able to spread in a sustainable way,” Dammann said.
Dammann said fundraising efforts are being undertaken to help fund the initiative.
“We have set an initial budget of just over $100,000,” said Dammann. “We are raising funds through the Indiegogo campaign and through Utopia, which with its non-profit status makes all donations tax deductible. We are also talking with other foundations and non-profits.”
Working with the Utopia Foundation in Traverse City and the web-based crowdfunding program Indiegogo, fund raising began in earnest. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/vasi-amazonian-vision-4-integrated-sustainability/x/5931991#/
“[W]hat really blows my mind is that the students and residents of these communities, some of the poorest, most dis-empowered, and ignored in the world, keep saying, ‘we are just starting here, in our communities, but then we need to expand and open this up to other people, to our neighbors, to other regions, and other parts of the world,'” Dammann said.
“I guess they aren’t kidding about an Amazonian Vision—the name was created and chosen locally. And, that is what I find exciting: some little towns in the middle of Amazonia, harder than heck to reach, saying, ‘ya know what, we aren’t just going to pull our selves up, we are going to change the world.”