Before working at Luker Chocolate as a trainee at Granja Luker, our cocoa research and training center, I imagined that I would work in an office with white walls and full of computers, but I was very wrong.
When I arrived at Granja Luker, my welcome committee was made up of a pack of very grumpy dogs who wouldn’t let me in, because they, good guard dogs that they are, are in charge of keeping the farm safe. It was only after I managed to come in closer to them that they let me in so I could get to my new job. Without knowing it, one of the dogs -Peggy- would become my inseparable adventure companion. It was then that I realized that this was not a typical job because from then on my working days would be spent in the middle of a cocoa forest and my time shared with hundreds of different species.
Plants, and crops in general, are known to harbor an immense number of insects and animals, but deforestation and the intensive use of monocultures have caused them either to migrate or to increase their populations disproportionately, to such an extent that they are considered pests. Forest plantations in Colombia have been used for commercial purposes and as strategic tools for the restoration of degraded soils and the conservation of water resources; however, the effect of forest plantations on local diversity has been insufficiently evaluated, especially in the role they play as habitats for the restoration and conservation of biodiversity (Haggar et al., 1997, Barlow et al., 2007, Mitra and Sheldon 1993). In the case of Luker Chocolate, we have implemented agroforestry systems both on Granja Luker and on our cocoa farms in Necoclí (550 ha) and Casanare (1,000 ha), thus promoting biodiversity and an optimal environment for the conservation of autochthonous fauna and flora.
But how do we measure the biodiversity we promote with our crops? Birds are used as an indicator of a region’s biodiversity because their abundance and occurrence is influenced by the characteristics and composition of the habitat with which they are associated, because they are relatively easy to observe, and they can be counted at large scales (GREGORY, 2006); RAMÍREZ-ALBORES AND RAMÍREZ-CEDILLO, 2002). Only in our cocoa forest in Necocli, there are 96 different bird species, almost 10% of the total number of birds reported in Colombia.
At Granja Luker, we measure biodiversity not only based on the presence of birds but also on the many other species that inhabit the crop’s ecosystem and that, in time, have become cocoa friends. Here are some of my most memorable anecdotes involving some of them.
On my first day of work, I decided to tour the farm with Peggy. As we walked, she started barking and frantically chasing after a group of birds. As I got closer, I realized that these animals were not in the cocoa field by chance; on the contrary, they were setting traps on the cocoa fruits to attract insects that would become their food.
Little by little, the day progressed, and it was soon time for lunch. In an ordinary office, lunchtime is usually a time to interact with our colleagues, and although that was what I was hoping for, it was not the case, since my colleagues were a little different. As I approached the dining room -to which the herd of dogs had come too- 1 km away from the main house, I came across chickens that were also looking for food, as well as a couple of hungry ducks and a parrot that shouted “¿Quiere cacao?”.
A month later, I went to gather fruit with the farmworkers under a completely clear sky; the day was sunny, and I felt that nothing wrong could happen. But all of a sudden, I felt as though I was being electrocuted. I started screaming and the workers, used to such things, told me to take my shirt off because I was being stung by tiny wasps. I listened to them and managed to get rid of the insects, but then I decided to go back to see what had stung me, only to get stung again. I had been warned that in life one has both good and bad bosses, that some of them may even be moody, but I do not think that anyone has been so severely judged by a boss as I was by those wasps; surely that was their way of telling me that I had to be more respectful of their home.
The ecosystem at La Granja also includes some white worms that are colloquially called “gusano pollo” or chicken worms and that appear at certain times of the year. The first time I heard about them was when a farmer was pruning the trees, and one of these worms bit him and left him with a fever all day long. These animals are very common and go unnoticed as they feed on the leaves and live below them.
One day, everything was suddenly completely different. As we crossed a guadua bridge, we came across a small friend who could be terrifying for some people and fascinating for others: a snake found in some trees near a creek that crosses through the farm. When we saw it, I panicked and decided to move away a little, but it was used to seeing humans and didn’t get upset. One of the workers took it in his hands to take pictures of her, as it was one of the “pets” that belonged to the farm and, as they are often killed in the region, this one was being protected by the workers. After the photo was taken, the worker put it back in its den, while I recovered from the shock!
Finally, I will never forget the day when one of the workers saw something tiny moving in the bushes and decided to take a look. It was a baby squirrel that had lost its mother, so he took it to the farm, took care of it himself, and protected it from predators. In time, the squirrel decided to go its own way, but it often comes back to visit the worker that helped it as a baby, or to eat cocoa cobs!
These are just a few of the many species that live here and show how a cocoa crop can become a sanctuary for hundreds of coexisting vertebrate and invertebrate animals, from possums, armadillos, guatines, dogs, cats, ducks, rabbits, to snakes and insects. They have to be protected and cared for because they perform a task that is way more important than anything we can do: they maintain a balance of populations and the biodiversity of an entire ecosystem. While they do such an outstanding job, I, who remained working at Granja as an agricultural analyst, will continue to let them walk with me and fill my days with greater meaning.