Slow and Steady Wins Big on a Cocoa Farm in Costa Rica

At FINMAC, an organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified cacao farm in Costa Rica’s Atlantic region, it’s not uncommon to see a mama sloth hanging from one of the monorails used to transport cocoa pods, inching her way along with a baby sound asleep on her belly. And not just on the monorail: visitors walking through this lush 600-acre (244 hectares) farm are likely to see dozens of sloths hanging from cocoa trees, as FINMAC provides habitat for no fewer than 450 of these charming creatures.

Surrounded by conventional pineapple, banana, and cattle farms, FINMAC is a forest oasis: it has at least 120,000 cocoa trees planted under the shade of hundreds of almendro, sota caballo, cristóbal and eucalyptus trees, and hundreds of plantain and coconut palms. This agroforestry system, known as cacao agroforest, is an ideal habitat for birds, howler monkeys, and especially Costa Rica’s iconic sloths. It also reflects the principles underlying Rainforest Alliance certification.

A sloth and her baby

A sloth and her baby mosey along a monorail cable at FINMAC.

“Sloths thrive at our cocoa farm because here they have plenty of food and good trees to rest and move around, and because this is an organic farm that provides a safe, chemical-free habitat,” explained Geovanny Herrera, a local biologist who assists sloth ecology research for the University of Wisconsin, Madison. For the last ten years, Herrera’s team has studied sloths on FINMAC in order to understand their dispersal, migration, genetic exchange, and the link between agriculture and sloth habitat.

Because the cocoa trees on FINMAC are short (approximately six to eight feet tall), they allow the biologists to freely observe the farm’s slow-moving creatures. Herrera said that the sloths here seem especially fond of the trees planted as part of reforesting efforts, a conservation practice promoted by the Rainforest Alliance certification. FINMAC’s environmental efforts have benefited the population of howler monkeys as well, which has grown from five to 40 in ten years, Herrera said.

FINMAC’s agroforestry model hasn’t only been good for sloths—it’s been good for business. The agroforest helps improve soil, which in turn improves the quality of the cocoa beans, explained Jorge Guzmán, FINMAC’s farm manager. And because only organic fertilizer is applied and the hand-picked beans are processed in house, FINMAC produces fine-flavor cocoa beans, a high-quality and aromatic variety that is highly sought after by international markets and luxury chocolatiers.

FINMAC exports to Europe the majority of the 110,000 kg of cocoa beans it produces each year, but some are sold to domestic chocolatiers like Sibú, a small Costa Rican company that makes artisan chocolate for national and international markets, and Chocolates Amazilia, a small company made of local women who make organic chocolate and generate additional income for their families, with help from FINMAC.

Chocolates Amazilia was born in 2004, when FINMAC’s owner Hugo Hermelink and a couple of biologists who were studying sloths encouraged a group of farm workers’ wives to start their own business, given the lack of job opportunities for women in that region. One year later, the women were selling their first organic chocolate bars. Today, the small company sells approximately 20,000 organic chocolate bars and employs eight local women.

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As forests disappear, countless species are threatened with extinction.