Chocolate: Understanding the Roles Farmers & Responsible Tourism Play

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Raw cocoa.

Responsible tourism underpins every aspect of the Travel & Tourism industry. It’s not a specific sector — like adventure or luxury travel — but rather a commitment within the travel experience to make respectful and responsible tourism choices. Choosing international tourism companies with sustainable solutions baked into their company model is one solid way to take a responsible trip. Supporting socially conscious small businesses is another option. These small, locally based businesses allow travellers to use their tourism dollars to directly support local social issues, while also learning about an intriguing aspect of the local culture. Past-featured businesses have provided a window into everything from fair trade coffee in Asia to tribal tourism in Africa. In continuing our social enterprise series, we’ll take a closer look at a small tourism collective on the edge of the Ngäbe Buglé Conmarca in northeastern Panama.

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Silico Creek is a mere blip on the map between Bocas del Toro and Boquete. Buses whiz past this indigenous village, only pausing if you warn the driver you’re stopping at kilometer 25, home of the Urari Rural Tourism Community. My family and I visited during the warm summer rains and spent several days learning the intricate nuances of this indigenous group. Urari’s emphasis is on fostering a connection between the tourists and the local community; we found friends and faces always nearby to talk with us throughout the day. At times, the sound of song lifted on the breeze before lunch as the community gathered in the local church.

After lunch, our guide would collect us for the day’s activity. The focus of the collective, and the highlight, is learning how the community grows and processes cacao into chocolate. I’m a self-confessed chocolate addict, so I was fascinated to learn each stage. We started by walking through the farm — the swollen, heavy cacao pods hung low from the trees. Then our guide walked us through the roasting and grinding process.

My niece helped crank the grinder, and in the end we had a thick, bitter paste we each sampled. The afternoon ended with us sipping steaming cups of freshly ground hot chocolate. And while I loved understanding the process behind the chocolate, it’s more than that. It was the sum total of learning about the community and putting a sereies of faces to this remote village far from home. My family and I now have a story connected to our Panama trip that wouldn’t have existed without our visit to Silico Creek. After our time at Urari, we headed to Boquete and Panama City, each intriguing but neither stop providing the same level of insight into relationship between Panama and its indigenous populations.

One of the things I love about social enterprise is the ability for small communities to design and manage the change they want to see in their lives. In this case, the family community at Silico Creek founded Urari with this mission:

“To be an organisation that promotes economic independence through active participation of the community in the development of rural community tourism, using our strong natural attractions and the traditional culture that we know, to improve our economy and our quality of life.”

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At this point, Urari is still in the early years of development. Their rural tourism program is ramping up and they continue to design and build services that meet the needs of visiting travellers. By adding tours and homestays into their community, they have given their families a way to continue farming and continue the traditional ways of life, while also adding a significant income stream that supports electricity in the village, cell phones, and other modern conveniences.

The keyword for many social enterprises is empowerment. With diversified income, my guide explained that they would have more power to negotiate fair prices for their cacao, which is sold through a cooperative in the city. Around the world, farmers are often forced to take depressed local rates for their goods if they don’t have the time to wait out the dip. Without diversified income, instead of waiting for the price of cacao to increase, some communities are forced to sell below their anticipated profit. Through Urari, the community hopes to have more leverage and control over their crops, and over their lives.

For travellers, a handy side benefit of social enterprise travel is the ability to wield our discretionary income as a force good. We have the power to support these businesses and infuse money directly into the local economy. The range of social enterprises around the world cover every style and type of travel. Travelling responsibly is a mindset more than niche sector reserved for one type of travel. And beyond being good for the places we visit, it’s also one of the most fascinating ways to glimpse the local culture and take home a deep understanding of each new place.

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Considering a Visit to Urari?

What You Can Do: Urari offers a range of activities to suit either an afternoon visit, or a multi-night stay in their wooden bungalows. Visitors can tour the cacao farm and learn the process of making chocolate, hike to nearby waterfalls through the beautiful jungle, or spend the day with an indigenous farming family. They collective also sells locally made handicrafts and textiles. Having a decent command of Spanish is recommended. They have photos and stories on their Facebook page.

Where: Located in the north east of Panama, the closest city is Changinola. Visiting this small village is best coupled on a trip to the popular Bocas del Toro.

When: Though there is a distinct rainy season, the rains are warm and visitors are welcome year-round.

Booking a Trip: Contact Urari directly through their website and they will help determine when is best for your visit. Their organization does host school groups at times, so if you hope to stay in the cabins, book ahead!

Written by Shannon O’Donnell for our series on social enterprises and tourism.

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