Unique Flavors with a Positive Impact: The Future of Ecuadorian Amazonian Cocoa Beans

Indigenous cocoa farmer walking through his agroforestry farm in Orellana province, Ecuador. Photo by PROAmazonía.

The Ecuadorian Amazon, with an area four times the size of Belgium, is the home of 245,000 inhabitants of 10 indigenous nationalities, who represent a third of the population in this region. It also hosts 17 protected nature reserves that cover 26% of the territory. In this region, sustainable cocoa cultivation is gaining importance as a deforestation-free income generating activity for local farmers.

“We collected 363 tons of cocoa in 2019,” says Rosendo Castillo, president of the producer association Asociación de Productores de Café Ecológico Lago Agrio – Lago Agrio Echological Coffe Producers Association (APROCEL) in the Sucumbíos province. He continues, “We purchased from more than 1,300 members that had between one and two hectares each.” This fragmented, small-scale production is characteristic of the six Amazonian provinces in Ecuador, where 15,000 small farmers produce 20,000 tons of cocoa beans on more than 40,000 hectares a year.

However, the case of APROCEL is an exception. Only a small percentage of the cocoa produced by indigenous and settler farmers in the Amazon is sold to associations that seek better prices and specialized markets for their members. Unfortunately, most of it is sold to intermediaries who pay low prices and who are not concerned with quality and sustainability.

Sustainable cocoa beans drying process in Sucumbios province in Ecuador
Cocoa bean drying process in Sucumbios province, Ecuador Photo by PROAmazonía

Therefore, as Katy Pazmiño, director of the producer association Asociación de Productores de Cacao y Café del Eno – Eno Cocoa and Coffee Producers Association (APROCCE) in Sucumbíos says, “the challenge is to find markets with better prices”.

This challenge is critical to allow families to be economically sustainable, which also fosters social and environmental sustainability since it prevents the expansion of the production area into the forest. This is also understood by PROAmazonía, the Amazon Integral Program for the Forest Conservation and Sustainability of the Ministry of Environment and Water and the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock of Ecuador, implemented with the support of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). PROAmazonía, funded by the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility, works towards the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the conservation of forests and the transition to sustainable production of cocoa, coffee, palm oil, and livestock in the Amazon Region. For this purpose, PROAmazonía works with 26 producer associations, of which 10 represent around seven percent of the Amazonian cocoa production. The work is centered around improving quality, productivity, sustainability, and traceability throughout the production chain of those commodities. PROAmazonía’s efforts to foster sustainability in cocoa production include identifying market niches for sustainable Amazonian cocoa, training associations in internal control systems, finance, and administrative conditions; organizing awareness events, developing a sustainable cocoa production platform, and helping to map out farm perimeters to monitor forest cover and forest degradation to prove a free-deforestation production.

Fortunately, the Ecuadorian Amazonian cocoa has proven to have great potential to match the sophisticated international demand.

First, it’s possible to develop diverse flavor profiles. There are many varieties in the Amazon, 40% of which are part of the Complejo Nacional, which is composed of Arriba Nacional, Súper Árbol, and small batches of native cocoa species. All these varieties offer the opportunity to develop flavors and aromas that differentiate the region on a global level due to the unique climatic, geologic, and altitudinal conditions of the Amazon.

Second, there is a great opportunity for added value based on sustainability and regional identity. In different provinces, diverse systems exist that combine sustainable, organic, and deforestation-free production with cultural and territorial aspects.

A clear example of the efforts made by PROAmazonía to preserve the forest and to foster sustainable production is to partner with indigenous producers’ associations, whose production systems help maintain the forests and their ecosystems. In Napo, for example, the farmers primarily belong to the Kichwa indigenous group that utilizes the Chakra, a biodiverse agroforestry system rooted in their culture and managed by women. The Chakra, is a family production unit that besides producing food and medicine, is a way of life, where farmers form a spiritual connection that helps preserve the system. “We are developing a seal that certifies the use of the Chakra production method,” commented Bladimir Dahua, administrator of the Kallari association. The Kallari association works on the development of the certification along with the Tsatayaku and Wiñak associations, the provincial government, the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Another example of the diversity of regional production systems is in Orellana, where the association Asociación De Producción Agropecuaria Café Sumaco – Café Sumaco Agricultural Production Asociation (ASOSUMACO) is close to incorporating the organic certification as part of their value proposal. “You always have to try to improve. Our cocoa is sustainably produced with key differentiators: indigenous production, agroforestry production, or production in the buffer zone of the Sumaco Napo-Galeras National Park, avoiding deforestation,” says its administrator, Wilson Yanez.

Additionally, in the Palanda region of the Zamora Chinchipe province, where cocoa production started more than 5,000 years ago, the association APEOSAE is working on a pilot project with the support of PROAmazonía to measure farms using Qfield technology and satellite images from the Global Forest Watch Platform to monitor the forest cover of those farms. Thus, the possibility to track the production from the farm to the final consumer is also added to this initiative, as stated by Vicente Medina, president of the association, “traceability is an indispensable condition for our clients”.

Sustainable cocoa fermentation process in Napo province in Ecuador
Cocoa fermentation process in Napo province, Ecuador Photo by PROAmazonía
Agroforestry system combining cocoa and timber production in Orellana province in Ecuador
Agroforestry system combining cocoa and timber production in Orellana province, Ecuador Photo by PROAmazonía

In order to make the most out of this potential in the region, the market needs to recognize not only the value of this high-quality product but also the effort and work of the local farmers and its positive impact in their living conditions, of their communities, and of their environment. Consequently, PROAmazonía has been working to identify the potential demand for sustainable, deforestation-free Amazonian cocoa, for which, among other activities, a contract was signed with the Brazilian firm Cluster Consulting. This firm identified that the countries with the greatest potential demand are the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, Belgium, France, and Switzerland; 25 buyers were interviewed in four business segments: commodity, certified commodity, fine, and premium to identify their cocoa purchasing criteria. Additionally, the firm interviewed 15 potential buyers within Ecuador with the same purpose.

Among all those interviewed, the most interested in Amazonian cocoa were buyers of fine and premium cocoa who are willing to pay differentiated prices for quality, positive environmental and social impact, and the opportunity to connect consumers to the producers’ experiences, history, and values from the region. This is already reflected in Ecuadorian chocolate makers such as República del Cacao, Pacari, Hoja Verde, and Ecuatoriana de Chocolate, which have started to introduce chocolates with Amazonian cocoa to the market by highlighting its origin.

To access the specialty market, the study recommends to continue with the strengthening of the associations through improving quality and productivity of specific aromatic profiles, improving the agroforestry and organic production systems, increasing transparency and bringing the producers closer to chocolate makers and consumers. Technical support from the government and supporting programs in the region will be fundamental for the success of the project, along with consistent demand for high-quality sustainable cocoa. These ambitious road will also be oriented by the Ecuador Premium&Sustainable national strategy, which aims to position the country in world markets as a producer of sustainable and high quality products.

Amazonian sustainable cocoa farm landscape
Amazonian cocoa farm landscape Photo by PROAmazonía

The goal is that by 2030, the 10 associations supported by PROAmazonía will commercialize a third of the 30,000 tons from the Amazon, selling half as fine and premium cocoa and the other half as a certified commodity. This objective is set within the framework of the Cocoa Competitiveness National Plan, a strategy led by the Coffee and Cocoa Reactivation Program of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, which is also supported by PROAmazonía. Reaching this goal will have a transformative impact on the Amazon and further enrich the array of flavors available to chocolate lovers around the world.


  • Carlos Tarrasón Collado, Director of Cluster Consulting, Consultant for UNDP
  • Juan Luis Salinas Dávila, Consultant for Cluster Consulting, Consultant for UNDP