The UN agency supports a cooperative in the country that includes 48 members and 1,300 producers.
It provides technical support, facilitates access to new markets and brokers agreements with the Bolivian government to protect the interests of small cocoa farmers.
Rare Criollo variety
El Ceibo started when farmers grouped in small cooperatives and then formed a central organization to avoid expensive intermediaries and improve market access. Farmers grow an estimated 70% of total organic cocoa cultivated in Bolivia.
The cooperative invests in the Agro-Ecological and Forest Implementations Program (PIAF), the technical arm of the cooperative.
The program looks for sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to diseases and challenges threatening local cocoa production.
Products are sold across Bolivia but also internationally in countries such as Italy.
FAO is working with a community of Andean people in Alto Beni that cultivate one of the main cocoa varieties called Criollo.
The Criollo tree is native to Central and South America, the Caribbean islands and Sri Lanka. Only 5% of the world’s production is Criollo, according to Barry Callebaut.
El Ceibo small-holder farmers plant about three or four hectares of land with cocoa seeds, while the rest (seven-eight ha) is cultivated with rice, yucca, bananas, citrus fruits, coffee and other local products, that are then sold at local markets.
Droughts, floods, extreme humidity and new plant diseases like Monilia fungus, are threatening production of cocoa and livelihoods of farmers in the Alto Beni region.
The sector is boosted by Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) support of the Tacana indigenous territorial organization (CIPTA) since the early 2000s.
Mario Choque is a cocoa farmer and member of the El Ceibo cooperative.
"We are mainly cacao producers. However, when the cacao is growing, we try to prepare other kinds of products ready for consumption. We produce maize, but we also make flour out of it. We have fruits, from which I sometimes make jam. I can sell them and make extra money from it,” he said.
“We diversify our land because when the cacao production is low, it supports us with food and incomes from the sales of what's left."
Choque added the PIAF program trained producers and helped them with phytosanitary management of plantations.
Once cocoa is collected, it is transported across the Andes to the factory of El Ceibo in El Alto where it is transformed into cacao powder, cocoa butter and chocolate.
It is one of the few examples where the entire production line is controlled by the same cooperative.
Bolivian chocolate in Italy
An agreement between FAO, Altromercato and multinational catering company Autogrill means El Ceibo's chocolate is sold at Autogrill Bistros in Milan, Venice and Rome.
The project started this year and after an initial test-phase, El Ceibo's chocolate can be found in 11 Autogrill Bistros along Italian highways, selected airports and railway stations.
FAO, its Forest and Farm Facility (FFF) and El Ceibo also support the Confederation of Bolivian Producers and Collectors of Ecological Cacao (COPRACAO).
The organization represents the five Bolivian departmental federations where cocoa producers and collectors operate. It represents around 5,600 producers and collectors with women being 40% of its members.
FAO and FFF helped establish legal status of all Bolivian cocoa associations and organize national and departmental meetings where COPRACAO' regulations are discussed with other associations.
The agency, government and representatives of cocoa associations are also working on a National Cocoa Program, to strengthen the productive system, accounting for regional specificities.