Lessons from a Cacao Pod

Cave time up at Tahoe. Kids are downstairs watching Attack of the Muppets or some such Star Wars tripe, Devon’s wandering the house on the cordless phone talking to, oh, undoubtedly her parents, and I’ve got a few minutes to write. About? Uh…  That, Natalie Goldman tells us, isn’t one of the most important questions to ask yourself when you’re doing creative writing.

Well, I guess that depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Regale your long-suffering readers with a little tale of adventure? Maybe a bit about coming across an abandoned (and undoubtedly illegal) cacao plantation while tromping through Honduran rainforest. Sure – that’ll do for a little interlude of amusement. But it’s not guaranteed to hit the mark if you have a specific point you’re trying to make, say, a rumination on land conservation through private enterprise vs public parks. If you’re wanting to make a point, it’s best to know right up front what point you’re going to try to make. Me? I’m going to try to have it both ways.
A week or so ago, I mentioned the joys of fresh cacao pods, pulled from the tree, popped open, and nibbled on an afternoon’s hike. Why wait for the shelling, fermenting, drying, grinding, pressing, conching, sweetening and all that takes these funky fruits and turns them into little dark squares of heaven? Well, for starters, when you eat the fruit, you spit out the seeds that actually get turned into chocolate, so there’s not a lot of flavor in common between the two. And sadly, there’s not a lot of synergy in the process – if you’re intent on making chocolate out of the pods, you’re supposed to leave the fruity bits on it to ferment and do something inexplicable to the seeds themselves. So you can’t get it both ways.

But there we were, in the spring of 2004 tromping through Pico Bonito National Park with Melvin, our Honduran guide, and there we came across the abandoned cacao farm.  You might think that “farm” and “national park” might be exclusive use cases for a single chunk of land, and that’s certainly what the Honduran government had had in mind, but local practicalities seemed to take precedence. The thick, almost impenetrable jungle we’d been hiking through just minutes before had given way to scrub trees as we passed from the privately owned (and patrolled) land of the Pico Bonito Lodge into the adjacent national park. The government just couldn’t afford to protect the land, so it fell to the tragedy of the commons, and had been logged and farmed into practical domestication. The national park was a noble idea, but its manifestation was a cruel parody of the ideal.

The lessons of Pico Bonito are not going unnoticed elsewhere in the world. I think I’ve mentioned that Devon and I are involved in a land conservation project in Panama, right? As development, logging, mining and just plain sprawl from Panama city inches eastward, the tribes of the Kuna nation are trying to find ways to preserve control over their land. Their neighbors long ago sold themselves downriver in unfortunate land deals, and the Kuna don’t want to make the same mistake. They’ve got Earth Train down there, providing the legal, social, media and technical training to make their stand, and they seem to have a good plan for it.
One of the problems they have is illegal logging and mining: someone drives a logging truck up onto Kuna land, cuts down and hauls away a few massive mahogany trees, trashing everything along the way. Or hauls in a placer mining rig to blast away at a stream in search of gold, and destroys the entire river downstream.
The Kuna just don’t have the resources to police all that land. But, drawing on the lessons of Pico Bonito, they may have an idea that doesn’t require them to police it. By selling certain chunks of their land to private eco-tourism investors, they can create a self-interested buffer between themselves and would-be raiders. If you ran a high-end eco-lodge in the rainforest, you’d be rather reluctant to allow a logging truck onto, let alone through your property, wouldn’t you? It’s just not in your financial interests.
Anyhow – that’s the rumination I think I wanted to chew on for a bit. We all love national parks, and assume that it’s a far better fate for lands than “private development”. But, as the song goes, it ain’t necessarily so. Is it?

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