Living in the Chocó Forests of Ecuador: The Chachi Cocoa Farmers

The Chachi live in the province of Esmeraldas, in the Chocó forest of Ecuador.

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I’m sure most of you have tried chocolate, but does anyone know where chocolate comes from? Chocolate comes from cocoa trees that grow in the rainforest, such as the Chocó forests of Ecuador. Today we are going to learn about the rainforests of Ecuador, and the plants, animals and people who live there. More than 13,000 people live in Ecuador. We’ll learn all about the people called the Chachi Indians, who live in the community of Esmeraldas in the Chocó forests. The Chachi live off of the resources that the forest provides, and are trying to keep these forests from being cut down. We’ll also see how the choices we make -- even the chocolate we eat -- can help keep the Chachi’s home alive.

Ecuador is located in the Northwest part of South America and is about the same size as the state of Nevada. It is one of the most geographically diverse countries in South America, because the Amazon rainforest, the Galapagos Islands, and the Andes. It is bordered by the Pacific coast, and the countries Colombia and Peru. Does Ecuador sound like another word you know? It was named for the equator, the imaginary circle around the middle of the earth’s surface, that divides the earth into the Northern Hemisphere and the Southern Hemisphere. Ecuador contains the one spot on the earth, Mount Chimborazo, that is closest to the sun! You can imagine how warm it can get in some parts of Ecuador.

The rainforest in Ecuador is thick with trees and other plants, which serve as homes and food to many animals.

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Ecuador’s location and climate make it an ideal place for rainforests to grow. The rainforests are both beautiful and important because they are home to thousands of different plant and animal species, and is also home to many people who use the rainforest for food, shelter, medicine and fuel. The Chocó forests, located along the northern coast of Ecuador, are home to over 9,000 plant and animal species, including more than 800 bird species, 235 mammals, and 210 reptile species! The thick forest of trees, the canopy (which is the layer of leaves and branches at the tops of the trees,) and the heavy rainfall make this place a perfect home for these animals.

This keel-billed toucan uses its large, colorful beak for breaking apart seeds and berries.

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Some of the animals that live in the rainforest include the four-eyed opossum, pacas, ocelots, jaguarundi and coati. You can see and hear many birds in the rainforest, such as the mealy parrot, the Chocó toucan, blue-gray tanager, tropical kingbird, squirrel Cuckoo, rufous-tailed hummingbird, and the ringed kingfisher. Each of these animals and birds plays an important role in the rainforest, and many animals and birds are now becoming endangered because people are cutting down the rainforests. Ninety six percent of the Chocó forests have already been destroyed!

The Black Howler Monkey (left) and the Capuchin (right) are just two of the many mammals that live in the Chocó forest of Ecuador.

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Howler Monkeys and capuchin monkeys like the ones seen here also live in the rainforests in Ecuador. Howler monkeys like to hang out in big groups of about 10 to 18 monkeys. They are herbivores, which means they eat the fruit and leaves of plants. And howler monkeys do howl! The males howl to communicate with other monkey groups to defend their territory. Capuchins also hang out in large groups of 10 to 20 monkeys. They like to stay in the canopy of the forest and eat things like fruits, leaves, berries, insects and even eggs.

This squirrel cuckoo can be seen in the mangroves of the Chocó forests.

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The Chocó forest also supports a coastal mangrove system. A mangrove is a woody plant, or a group of these plants, that grow between the land and the sea, along the shore. Mangroves are very important because they filter the water, prevent erosion, and protect the land from tropical storms. They are also home to many species of birds, fish and wildlife. The branches of the mangrove trees make perfect homes for birds, because they can hide from predators and also be close to the shore for food.

All of these delicious fruits grow in the rainforests!

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Although there are thousands of different kinds of animals that live in the Chocó forests, many people live in and around these forests as well. The Chachi Indians of Esmeraldas need these forests to survive. The forest is like their supermarket. The Chachi people can get food, medicine and fuel for fire from the forests. The forests provide the Chachi with food such as mangos, papayas, citrus, and guava. They also eat food from the mangroves such as shrimp, crab and fish.

These Chachi Indian boys are gathering bananas and other fruit from the Chocó forest.

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Young Chachi Indians help with crops, doing chores, and gathering fruits from the Chocó forest. These Chachi boys are gathering bananas and other fruits from the forest. Some of these fruits will be taken home for their families to eat, and many of them will be sold in the bigger cities in Ecuador. It is a lot of work to harvest the fruit of the forest, but the Chachi Indians survive by using the forest’s resources and working hard to grow and gather these many plants.

This young Chachi Indian lives with his family in San Salvador, a city in Ecuador.

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Young boys and girls of the Chachi Federation go to school, too. The Chachi speak Chapalachi, but in their books in school are in Spanish so they learn two languages! This young boy goes to school and also does chores, like cutting firewood, on his family’s farm in San Salvador.

These are the seeds of the cocoa plant, which are dried and turned into chocolate.

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One very important plant that grows in the Chocó forests is the cocoa or cacao tree. It may be hard to picture, but chocolate comes from these cocoa trees, which grow under the forest canopy. The fruit of the cocoa tree grows in large pods that hang from the trunk and branches of the tree. When the pods are cut open, you can see the white cocoa fruit, which tastes a little like chocolate. Inside this white fruit are dark purple seeds, and this is where we get our chocolate from! In this picture, you can see what these seeds look like.

A canoe is a good way to travel in the rivers of the rainforest.

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The Chachi Indians not only use the plants in the rainforest for food, they also use the water in the rainforest and the mangroves for transportation. A canoe is a very good way to carry cocoa seeds and fruits down the river. In some places near the Chocó forest there are no roads, so the Chachi have to canoe down to the roads to go into the bigger cities, where they can sell their cocoa.

These cocoa trees are a good home for rainforest animals. You can see the cocoa pods on the ground.

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Cocoa farms grown in the shade of the rainforest canopy provide a great habitat for wildlife. These types of crops, grown in the forest without cutting down the trees that shade them, are a good way to grow things like cocoa because they leave habitat for the rainforest animals. The cocoa trees seen here are grown in the shade, and are harvested by the Chachi Indians. The Chachi want to continue growing cocoa in the shade of the forest because they realize that the forest is very important to their lives, and the lives of people everywhere.

Some people cut down trees in the rainforest. What do you think will happen if they cut down too many?

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Many people do cut down trees in the Chocó forest of Ecuador. Some people cut down trees to sell to companies to make furniture or paper products, and some cut them down to make room to grow crops. For some families, this is how they make enough money to buy food, but people like the Chachi know that there are other ways to grow crops and earn money for their families.

These Chachi men feel at home in the Chocó forests. Look how big the tree is compared to this man!

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The Chachi Indians want to continue to harvest cocoa in a way that does not destroy the rainforest so that the plants and animals will always have a place to live. They grow cocoa in the shade so that they can keep the rainforests standing. This means that they grow crops in the rainforest, instead of cutting down the trees to make room for their crops. The Chachi are working together with Conservacion y Desarollo, a partner group of the Rainforest Alliance, to learn ways to dry and store the cocoa seeds better, so they can get more money for them when they are sold. By learning from this organization, the Chachi can continue to practice sustainable forestry, which means that the forest will be able to provide them with food, medicine, and fuel long into the future.

The rainforest is not just a beautiful place...

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The rainforest is not just a beautiful place -- it is a home to plants, animals, and people. It provides us with countless resources. By learning about how we can use the rainforest in a way that doesn’t destroy it, we -- and our children and even our children’s children -- can enjoy these beautiful forests and the many things that originate in the rainforest for many years to come.

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