Centre for Development and Environment (CDE)

Coffee Corner

Amazonia: The bittersweet taste of chocolate

Would you like a cappuccino, or would you prefer a macchiato? It’s an ordinary question. But it’s unusual when it’s asked in a small village coffee shop in the middle of Ecuador’s Amazon region, far away from any tourist hotspots. During her research, our PhD student Léa Lamotte came across the “Western lifestyle” – in a place where people are looking for alternatives to rainforest destruction.

Léa Lamotte

I took the bus from the main bus station of Quitumbe, South of Quito, to visit the Café Witoca, a place that my colleagues from ESPOL, the Ecuadorian academic partner of our research project, recommended to me as un proyecto muy chevere (“a great project”). After several hours of winding, bumpy road through the green of the Amazon, which tossed me about on my seat, I was glad to finally see the sign reading “Orellana es tu destino – Bienvenidos / Welcome WITOCA.LAB CAFETERIA”.

Café Witoca is located in Loreto, Ecuador. Google maps

A trendy café near the deep Amazon

Surprise. I find myself in front of Café Witoca, a one-storey house with white walls, decorated with large paintings of plants, surrounded by a few tables on a shaded terrace. I thought I was about to enter a trendy café, like the ones in the bohemian district of La Floresta, in Quito. It’s unexpected, this café with a modern, urban look, on the side of the E20, the highway that crosses the province of Orellana, a rural territory inhabited mostly by Kichwa communities, in the Oriente – soon to be Ecuador's deep Amazon.

This is the poorest region of the country, which is misperceived – to its detriment – as an “empty” space with almost unlimited raw materials to exploit – petroleum, gas, minerals. At the same time, alternatives are emerging, including community tourism and agroecological food production based on high-value Amazonian goods in international demand, such as high-quality chocolate and guayusa – a plant whose leaves are used to prepare an energizing infusion, whose flavour is close to that of mate, and is traditionally consumed by Amazonian communities.

On the wall to the entrance of the Café Witoca are listed its Instagram and Facebook accounts. Beneath it is a plaque under glass with the names of the organizations that contributed to fund this "Value Chain Program of Integral, inclusive and sustainable development". I recognize the name of the European cooperation agency – the German GIZ –, the Italian NGO CEFA, the European Union, and the local Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock.

Ecuadorian tradition with Italian taste

It’s 9 am on a cloudy Wednesday in November. Andrea López and Fabio Legarda, the two co-creators of the “WitocaLab”, welcome me with a smile in their café, which consists of a large, bright room. It’s already crowded, even though it’s still early. All in all, this roadside location seems ideal.

I first notice the open kitchen, with a shiny Italian coffee machine, the menu hanging on the wall, the tempting pastries under a bell, the 70% locally made chocolate bars set up next to the cash register. There are a few wooden tables; and shelves offering a variety of Amazonian and natural products of artisanal manufacture – coffee manjar, the Ecuadorian term for dulce de leche, a mixture of milk and sugar used as a topping for desserts or as a spread, as well as powdered ginger, soaps, hot sauces, peaches in syrup, coffee beans, and ground coffee. At the back, one can distinguish the machine for grinding cocoa and coffee beans. Next to the entrance, there is a freezer for artisanal ice cream made with local chocolate. Here, the ice creams are often eaten after removing them from the individual plastic glass that serves as a mould.

The menu and the non-coffee products of the Café Witoca. Photos: Léa Lamotte

I watch a family set up and choose their coffees with the help of Fabio’s explanations. Just 30 years old, this native of Loreto, a city in the province of Orellana, is passionate about the Robusta coffee, and is constantly looking for new ways to valorise all the products of the coffee beans. He and his partner Andrea have created a lemonade based on the infusion of coffee husks. They also offer some small-scale catering dishes, in which they update the traditional use of local Ecuadorian products. They exclaim, for example: “We made hummus de chocho!" – the common highly nutritious seeds from a plant called “Andean lupine”, part the Ecuadorian diets.

Between serving customers, wrapping chocolates, re-sorting, by hand, good coffee beans from bad ones, Andrea and Fabio tell me the story of their project.

Fabio Legarda and Andrea López in their Café.

An alternative to the destruction of the Amazon Forest

They met during their studies, respectively in finance and administration at the private University San Francisco of Quito, realized thanks to a government scholarship. Then, from Fabio’s childhood home where they now live, they set up their project: using the raw material of coffee – and, to a lesser extent, cocoa – as vectors for the protection of the Amazonian Forest.

Indeed, though the Amazon Forest currently covers half of the country’s surface, it is disappearing at a rate of five soccer fields per hour. And the province of Orellana, where the coffee for Café Witoca is located, is one of the most-affected regions. The land area dedicated to agriculture and livestock is increasing; roads are being built, fragmenting the forest; and mining resources, oil, and wood are increasingly being exploited, legally or illegally. The goal of immediate profits modifies land use. When crops are no longer productive or prices collapse, the sale of wood from the Amazon Forest provides a safe haven. And the post-Covid return to the countryside of many Ecuadorians, who had originally migrated to work in urban centres, has worsened this dynamic.

Highway in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin. Photo: Dr Morley Read / shutterstock

Andrea and Fabio, who have chosen to work mainly with coffee because Fabio’s family has been growing Robusta coffee for generations in the surrounding lands, purposefully buy coffee and cocoa from local producers at prices higher than those of the traditional market. These better prices guarantee smallholders better living conditions and prevent them from selling Amazonian wood for income. Andrea and Fabio also recently participated with Ecuadorian foundations to co-develop a wildlife monitoring programme with camera traps to ensure long-term conservation of wildlife parcels.

The Ecuadorian Amazon represents almost half of the country’s total area. Between 2001 and 2020, the country had a deforestation rate of 623,510 hectares, according to data analysed by Mapbiomas Amazonía, represented in Ecuador by Fundación EcoCiencia. A total of 77% of the deforestation in Ecuador’s Amazon has been concentrated in four provinces, including Orellana. The main drivers of deforestation are the expansion of the agricultural and livestock frontier, infrastructure development, mining and hydrocarbon exploitation, and the extraction of timber resources.

The analysis is not limited to the period 2001–2020; the authors also reviewed the situation of Ecuador's Amazonian forests going back to 1985. Their results show:

  • By 2020, agricultural use in the Ecuadorian Amazon Basin increased by 39% compared to its extent in 1985. It increased by 496,000 hectares.
  • By 2020, the infrastructure had increased by 155% compared to its 1985 extent. It increased by 25,700 hectares, especially in the province of Orellana.
Source: Fundación EcoCiencia


  • Between 2000 and 2020, mining in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin multiplied 24 times in terms of surface area. It increased by 3,906 hectares.

The transitions of land coverage from 1985–2021 can be found on the map by Mapbiomas (in Spanish). At the centre is the provincial capital of San Francisco de Orellana.

Coffee plants in the backyard of the Café Witoca. Photo: Moritz Egger, FiBL
The coffee beans from Witoca are dried. Photo: Moritz Egger, FiBL

This commitment to the protection of the Amazon rainforest is in line with the evolution of the European Union's trade regulations. Indeed, the European Commission is set to approve new legislation on “imported deforestation” in 2023. Companies trading coffee, cocoa, soy, beef, palm oil and wood, as well as derivative products such as leather, chocolate and furniture, will be required to demonstrate that their products do not cause deforestation if they wish to sell in the European Union.

Changing the traditional paradigm

And what about the chocolate? The story is similar to coffee. Cocoa trees grow spontaneously in the Amazonian Kichwa local agroforestry systems, called Chakras, comprising a variety of local plants and trees, primarily for self-consumption . The native “cacao nacional” variety is prized for its “fine aroma” flavours. As with coffee, Andrea and Fabio seek to add value to the cocoa bean and thus counteract traditional trade dynamics, in which only the cocoa beans are exported to Western countries. Through experimentation, they have learned to make chocolate bars. They now sell several types of bars locally and in other cafés run by friends in Quito. In fact, they are part of a new trend of chocolate producers who are trying to re-connect the traditional Ecuadorian food identity of cocoa producer to consumption of dark chocolate, or chocolate-based products.

Cocoa fruit with beans. Photo: Moritz Egger, FiBL

These recent food trends, mostly urban-based and practiced by people with high incomes, are now being realized in the middle of the Amazon thanks to the work of Café Witoca. Usually, most coffee and/or cocoa producers do not have the financial means, or the physical access, to taste the final product made with their “raw material”. The Café Witoca project is therefore about changing the traditional paradigm according to which, as Andrea deplores, “coffee or chocolate beans disappear into a truck and no one knows their destination”. This appropriation of knowledge and know-how around local food products is fuelled by power relations and dynamics inherited from the colonial past.

Since colonial times, cocoa production has possessed great importance in the national economy. Ecuador was one of the main world exporters of cocoa in the 19th century. Today, cocoa is still important in the agricultural production of the country.

Two main varieties of cocoa are produced: CCN-51, variety of hybrid cocoa, engineered to be much more productive and more disease-resistant, and Cacao Nacional, which is understood as “fine aroma”. The latter is recognized as very good quality raw material to produce chocolate. Ecuador is the world's leading producer of this “fine aroma” cacao, with a market share of over 55%. The provinces with the highest cocoa yields are located near Guayaquil, by the Pacific coast, in Los Rios and Guayas. In comparison, Cocoa yields are very rare in the Amazonia.

Cocoa is exported in bean form as a commodity whose price fluctuates according to variations in the stock exchange.

Domestic consumption is very low, comprising only 2% of local Ecuadorian production. Nevertheless, local chocolate production in the country is increasing.

The silent reproduction of racism

Colonial dynamics are always very sensitive topics; and so ingrained that they are difficult to challenge. In Loreto, the social network is mainly made up of small Kichwa farmers, the main ethnic group of the Ecuadorian Amazon region, recognized by the 2008 Constitution as one of the thirteen indigenous nationalities of the country. Despite state recognition of pluri-nationality and interculturality, whites or mestizo individuals, the latter from the union of parents of two different ethnicities, are still considered the “dominant” groups. The society is repeating the silent reproduction of racism and internalized colonialism.

Andrea and Fabio are aware of these inequalities, which they are trying to address by working with young Kichwas, not only as cacao and coffee farmers, but also as customer-service staff in the Café Witoca. They admit that the results have been mixed. And the challenges of the ethnic groups intersect with that of the rural exodus of young people to Quito.

In between the city and the jungle

To make the countryside a living space, Andrea and Fabio actively participate in the animation of a children’s club drawing on the surrounding rural communities, called “Huaticocha Reading Club”. They offer free activities focused on reading, art, cooking afternoons with local grandmothers who share traditional recipes, and coffeemaking with local coffee beans. They try to have one foot in local, inter-cultural community development and the other in “modernity” – or as Fabio says: “We create a connection between the city and the jungle.”

For instance, they also share with the children their knowledge of the English language, seen as one of the keys to enter the “modern” world: it is seen as the way to be able to interact with tourists and to communicate their project internationally – indeed, some of their posts on social networks are in English.

Becoming aware of the magnitude of Western influence

Listening to Andrea and Fabio, I could not help myself thinking about the continuity of Western influence, and its consequences in the Amazonian territory. Learning English and eating chocolate while Ecuadorian food identity does not recognize itself in the consumption of dark chocolate bars: Where to place oneself between the justified desire to belong to the modern world and to take care of the traditions and sensitivities of the inhabitants of the territory? How can one find a balance between the necessary financial support of international organizations – the Witoca project likely would not exist without the international funding of the Italian NGO CEFA – and the development of alternatives to the Western model of “progress”?

Illustration by the Ecuadorian graphic artist Angie Vanessita, https://angievanessita.com

Indeed, Andrea and Fabio won a competition organized by CEFA five years ago, which granted them access to substantial funding to purchase coffee and cacao processing machines, as well as to participate in trainings in the preparation of specialty coffee, and to recruit members of the local community to work with them. But where does the power of the NGO on the Café Witoca start and stop? How does it influence its current development? And does its support properly emphasize the Sumak Kawsay (“Buen Vivir”), the Kichwa concept enshrined in the Ecuadorian constitution since 2008? This is a vision of the world of indigenous communities, based on respect for nature, community, the solidarity economy, and ancestral knowledge.

Many local Amazonian initiatives are in a similar situation. A friend of mine, Adriana from Tena, the capital of the Napo region, further south, set up her vegetarian restaurant “Bistrot Tena”, thanks to the support of another Italian NGO.

The point here is not to discuss the positive or negative effects of international cooperation in rural, remote, and – from the eyes of a Western gaze – “exotic” territories that capture our collective imagination. It is about becoming fully aware of their magnitude and impacts on local people’s lives.

The author

Léa Lamotte is a PhD student at CDE, working in the project "Deliberative diets - scenarios for a sustainable food system". Her research takes her to Ecuador and Spain, where she investigates how co-creating knowledges about chocolate and olive oil with the consumers can modify their purchasing and eating behaviors, even in their kitchens. In her Blog posts, which she dedicates to the persons she writes about, she brings us along on the journey and reflects on the realities she meets.