When cacao farmers like Emilio Rivera first heard of a government-backed initiative that would help them prune branches and leaves from their trees, they were skeptical.
After all, a lush cacao tree with more, not fewer, branches meant more profits, the farmers said. That's been the traditional way of thinking for generations of cacao farmers here in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
But in recent years, as disease has worsened, yields have dropped pretty dramatically, and some, like Rivera, have begun embracing the initiative wholeheartedly.
The main idea is that clearing some of the highest, hard-to-reach branches will let in more sunlight, which is sometimes hard to come by under the dense canopy of the Amazon. And more sunlight — not necessarily more branches — can mean a better cacao harvest, the thinking goes.
Cacao trees grow naturally in the jungle. But cacao — the coveted key ingredient in chocolate — has also been cultivated in small farms like Rivera's for years. Ecuador is one of the world's biggest producers.
Cacao is actually an edible fruit that's fermented after harvest. Meanwhile, the fruit's seeds (not edible, at least initially) are roasted, and the ingredients are combined and eventually cooked from powder into a cocoa-like substance.
Farmers like Rivera are at the beginning of a long chain of production, and his enthusiasm in the new "pruning brigades" no doubt partly stems from the fact that it's free labor. And don't be fooled by a delicate-sounding word like pruning. It was actually a small army of workers that arrived at his farm earlier this year. They were carrying long chainsaws and other tools that made cutting and trimming branches quick and simple.
In one morning, a pruning brigade can do what it would take Rivera and his family three weeks to do by hand. At the recent harvest, he got 600 pounds of cacao, compared with only 200 pounds before he took part in the initiative.
"I've seen a big improvement," Rivera says in Spanish through a translator.
Rivera farms on about an acre of cleared jungle along the banks of the Aguarico River in eastern Ecuador. It's about a 15-minute ride — by motorized canoe — from the nearest village. It's beautiful, even exotic feeling, when you finally arrive. Yet this "global cradle of cacao production," as the Ecuadorian Amazon is often called, is extremely remote.
Even the cacao farmers are cut off from each other. Communication isn't easy, and it's not the kind of place where an outsider can just expect to change things overnight.
"We have elderly people who told us they'd rather have their arms cut off than their branches," says Ricardo Zapata, a coordinator with Minga del Cacao, the group promoting and operating the "pruning brigades" with the help of the Ecuadorian Ministry of Agriculture.
Zapata hopes the early success on display by Rivera and some of his neighbors will be a model for other, more skeptical farmers, or those who haven't yet heard of the new techniques.
The group, along with the agriculture ministry, has a goal of pruning 80 percent of all of Ecuador's cacao farms over the next two years. It's an ambitious target. There are at least 120,000 acres of cacao farms across this South American country, which is roughly the size of Colorado. But so far, they've hired and trained more than 1,000 pruners to work in more than 100 brigades.
It's a bold commitment that could ultimately boost exports as Ecuador's economy otherwise sours. Cacao is one of the world's most lucrative crops, after all. All but 5 percent of what's grown here is now exported. Ecuadorian-produced chocolate is famous and fetches a premium price at market — not to mention at upmarket grocery stores in the United States.
Some government and NGO officials also hope the new pruning initiative will demonstrate to farmers the benefits of cacao over palm oil plantations — which are becoming increasingly popular here but are controversial, in part because they require large amounts of the jungle to be cleared out.
As for Emilio Rivera, whose main source of income is cacao, he told me his recent success with the pruning initiative has him eyeing a possible expansion.
Whether or not there is funding for the free brigades to return next season may not matter. He said he's been learning some of the brigade's techniques, and he and his family could do most of the work on their own if need be.
This story was reported with support from the International Reporting Project.