Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate are changing lives in Peru with the Yorkshire Rainforest Project

PUBLISHED: 17:24 05 April 2013 | UPDATED: 22:08 19 January 2016

Claire and Caroline get a closer look at the Peruvian rainforest where cocoa grows naturally

Claire and Caroline get a closer look at the Peruvian rainforest where cocoa grows naturally

How Bettys is changing lives with chocolate. Words by Jo Haywood

The Ashaninka people don’t have much, but they do have cocoa beans. The seeds, squeezed tightly into fist-sized pods, grow abundantly in their Peruvian rainforest homeland. Until recently, however, they didn’t really know what to do with them.

But that began to change in 2009 when Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate set up its Yorkshire Rainforest Project to protect an area of Peru’s Amazon rainforest the size of the Yorkshire Dales. It’s an ongoing process, but the indigenous Ashaninka are now beginning to make a living from farming cocoa beans that grow naturally in the Ene river basin rather than logging, which was decimating their landscape and blighting future generations.

Cocoa yields have increased significantly in the last three years with farmers now producing 10 tonnes of cocoa a year, up from 1.5 tonnes in 2010. But they still don’t always get a sustainable return from traders and they struggle to maintain a consistent standard to get the best price.

‘There’s still a long way to go,’ said Bettys’ head of food and drink innovation Claire Gallagher, who recently spent seven days in Peru on a fact-finding mission with bakery general manager Caroline Grant. ‘But it was amazing to see how far people have come. We’re not trying to tell the Ashaninka what to do, but it’s encouraging to see them grasping the potential of what grows naturally around them.’

Bettys & Taylors has raised around £750,000 in the last three years to fund Rainforest Foundation outreach work among the Ashaninka, who were hit hard during the 1980s and 90s when Maoist guerrilla insurgents (commonly known as The Shining Path) launched a bloody and brutal revolution. This year, the company will continue to support farmers so they can improve the quality and quantity of their cocoa crop to ensure they can trade their beans for a good price.

Caroline and Claire saw how their Harrogate employer is helping to change lives when they joined representatives of CARE (Central Ashaninka of the River Ene), responsible for delivering the project in Peru, on an expedition that took in the Pangoa Cooperative, which currently supplies beans for Bettys’ Peruvian Pangoa Coffee, the Pamakiari community’s cocoa bean chakras (smallholdings), the Alto Camantavishi chakras and, finally, the Kemito Ene Congress, which brought together cocoa bean farmers from across the district.

‘The journey wasn’t easy; in fact, it was very, very hard,’ said Caroline. ‘We spent hours in small boats with unforgiving metal floors, had very little to eat and slept out in the open, but it was an incredible, unforgettable experience.

‘It was challenging, but it was also an absolute privilege to see the work that’s being done – and the work the Ashaninka are doing themselves – to change lives.’

When she says it was challenging, she’s not kidding. During their trip, the women ‘enjoyed’ a pint or two of masato or ‘spit beer’ (yes, one of the key ingredients is exactly what you think it is), gamely making appreciative noises while artfully letting only a miniscule amount of the evil brew pass their lips.

But they were thankful they’d left room as this was followed by a previously untried culinary combination of chicken neck with a side order of aptly-named yukka.

‘I also had a close encounter with a large rodent,’ said Claire, with admirable understatement. ‘I felt it run across my face in the night.’
But there was lots of fun too, with gift-giving at an Ashaninka community school and dancing to Bolivian pop tunes at a post-congress party.

‘We also literally had to sing for our supper,’ said Claire. ‘Every community had a party piece to perform at the congress and we soon realised we had to join in. So we sang a rousing chorus of We Wish You a Merry Christmas.’

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