DANTE WAS OUR GUIDE—a very inauspicious name, it seemed. Volker and I climbed into his dugout, and he yanked its outboard to life, steering us between curtains of endless rainforest. Combate lay three hours downstream. It was classic Amazon: flocks of green parrots and blue-and-yellow macaws flying across two by two; pink river dolphins surfacing; the drumroll of cicadas running up and down the river. I began to feel really, really good. It could have been the jaw-dropping wildlife and the sweet, clean tropical air, but it was probably the big fat wad of coca leaves in my cheek.
The sacred plant of Bolivia, coca is chewed by most of the indigenous population, and Dante seemed to have an eternal quid of it in his maw, so I'd asked for a little. I stuffed the dried leaves inside my cheek, added a smear of baking soda to start the chemical reaction, and let the alkaloids slowly ooze into my bloodstream. First, my tongue and cheek went numb, then things began to occur to me. One was that there is no better way to float down the Amazon than on the wings of a mild coca high. Another was that it's a crying shame that cocaine, a superconcentration of the alkaloids, has screwed things up, because natural coca is one of the world's best drugs. It simply makes whatever you happen to be doing the most deeply satisfying thing in the world. Three hours on a hard wooden seat? Twenty-four hours without food? No problemo, señor.
Curled up in the bow of our boat with his rifle, scanning the banks for tasty monkeys, was Aurelio Rivero. Aurelio, who grew up on a remote homestead in the area, made his living as a cacao trader, plying the river system in his dugout, buying sacks of cacao from the indigenous families that lived along the river, piling them precariously in his canoe, and selling them down in Trinidad, where Volker met him in 2008.
By then, Volker was already buying wild cacao from several traders and trying to generate interest outside of Bolivia. But in recent years, word of the chocolatales' existence had leaked out, and they'd become something of a cause célèbre with conservation organizations, both international and local. "This cacao was lying in front of their eyes all of the time!" Volker told me. No one had ever thought it was worth much. "And then I put my own money behind it and did it. And then people started saying, 'He's taking our resources! Getting filthy rich!' "
In reality, his goal is the same as the conservationists': to preserve the chocolatales, which he thinks should be UNESCO World Heritage sites, and move ever closer to "long-term sustainability in every economic, social, and environmental aspect." But he believes in the market-driven approach: "These forests have no value except for cacao. If they have no value, they'll be cut down [i.e., landowners will sell the timber instead]. The more interest you have in cacao, the more you save the forest. The most sustainable thing we can do is to raise the interest." But a decade of groundwork in Bolivia had taught him to respect the bizarre intricacies of the Amazonian economy. "Many, many people have lost their fortunes in Latin America. There's no Bolivia for Dummies! You have to figure it out yourself."
And that, he thinks, is where the nonprofits have failed. "They make a deal with an indigenous group, get some nice photos, then run to the grant funds, overpaying for almost any type of cacao, no quality whatsoever," and then selling it domestically. Rather than conservationism's old "Buy the land, create a beautiful park" approach, this is the new school's "Help people and places function together healthily and indefinitely" tack.
"They kicked the ball out of my hand," said Volker. "Many people here look for a certain threshold of money, and then they stop harvesting. Once the beer is secure, there's no reason anymore. Westerners think that by giving more and more money incentive, people will do more. Actually, they do less. Leisure is very highly valued in this culture. They have no bills. They're not hooked into the system."
Alex Whitmore, co-founder of Taza Chocolate—a company that also does business in Bolivia and is considered the paragon of direct, supportive relationships with Third World cacao farmers—agrees: "If they get free money, they don't want to work. Nonprofits pumping money into a community stymies the growth of sustainable agriculture. There's a balance that needs to be struck between nonprofit aid and for-profit industry. It's pretty messed up because of the coca."