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Chocolate starts out tasting like vanilla yoghurt — who knew?

Indonesia, October 23, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Cacao seeds, the essential ingredient in chocolate. Photo: Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps
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    Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Marsan, the farmer who donated his land for a Mercy Corps cacao clinic. Photo: Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Inside of ripe cacao fruit, which tastes a lot like vanilla yoghurt. Photo: Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps

Whenever I travel, I’m always sure to pack an emergency supply of chocolate. But until yesterday, when I saw cacao trees for the first time and talked to cacao famers in Indonesia about the help they are getting from Mercy Corps, I’d never really thought about where it comes from.

In Seram, one of the remote Maluku Islands in eastern Indonesia, chocolate itself can be hard to come by. It’s a long overnight flight and ferry ride from the hustle and bustle of Indonesia’s capital Jakarta — and things certainly move at a different pace. Cacao trees though, producing the fruit that holds the seeds chocolate is made from, are grown all over the island and, once they’d been pointed out to me, even I could spot their red-tinged leaves everywhere.

The island is full of beautiful beaches and lush green forest but, despite its beauty — like much of the Maluku Islands — Seram was torn by conflict ten years ago. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and abandon valuable cacao crops for more than a year. The troubles decimated the livelihoods of whole communities, and even now, years later, many are struggling to rebuild their lives. Without the regular care they need, cacao trees stop producing fruit. Without the knowledge on how to rehabilitate their plantations, even after returning home, farmers and their families are only earning a fraction of the income they did before the conflict began.

I came to Seram to see how Mercy Corps has been working with local people to rebuild their livelihoods and build peace between communities, through the Maluku Economic Recovery Programme, funded by New Zealand Aid. We began by visiting Banda Lama, a small community driven from their village for almost two years during the conflict in 2000, and who have been trying to renew their cacao plantations since they returned home.

Ambo Hassan Bugis, a 39-year-old farmer from the village told me: “Mercy Corps has helped us build peace with our neighbours by including everyone in community activities, and we’ve learnt how to look after our trees properly so we can get them back to producing the levels we were before the conflict. When we came back the trees were producing less than 10 percent of the amount they were before, and things are finally starting to improve now thanks to the help we’ve been given. It’s going to be a long process though, and there’s lots of work still to do, but we really need the income for our families.”

Ambo and other farmers from the village took us to see the new Mercy Corps Cacao Clinic, where a ‘show plantation’ has been set up to help farmers to learn about the techniques they need to care for their cacao trees and improve their crop. We met Marsan, a local farmer who donated some of his land for the clinic, cutting down all the coconut trees he had grown there.

“I went to training arranged by Mercy Corps on cacao, and got really interested," Marsan explained. "I wanted to be more involved and donated this land because I think the prospects for cacao growing here are very good, and I want all my neighbours to be able to learn about looking after cacao too so we can all share the knowledge and improve our community.”

As we walked across the clinic’s fields, Marsan pulled a ripe cacao fruit from one of the nearby trees and split it open. I was surprised to see it was full of soft, gooey white flesh — I’d expected it to be dark and crammed full of seeds.

“Please,” he said, “Try some.” I pulled out a section to try, and found that the flesh around the seed had the exact same taste and consistency as vanilla yoghurt. Not what I’d expected at all, but still absolutely delicious.

Across the coming months, Mercy Corps will hold more training for local cacao farmers, build a new office and meeting room for the cacao clinic, build new drying structures to speed up the process of getting the cacao seeds ready for sale, and distribute more than 10,000 cacao seedlings to cacao farmers across Seram. As Ambo said, it’ll be a long process, but getting Seram’s cacao plantations back on track will have a massive impact on the whole island.

Thanks to Ambo, Marsan and the Mercy Corps team in Maluku, when I get home to Scotland next week and settle down on my sofa with a cup of tea and a bar of milk chocolate, it’ll be with a whole new level of appreciation.