Film Reviews: El Cacao and No Place to Grow

Emilia Noel Ptak
The University of Vermont

The films El Cacao and No Place to Grow, directed by Michelle Aguilar, invite viewers to consider food as a nexus, where intertwining social, economic, cultural, and environmental influences result in precarious livelihoods for food producers. The films center on an indigenous cacao farmer in Panama (El Cacao) and a community garden in Santa Cruz, California (No Place to Grow). The films highlight their critical role in providing for communities, both at the local level and across the globe.

Chocolate is ubiquitous in the global food system. In the United States, consumers are accustomed to chocolate being a readily accessible product, often conveniently located at the checkout of the grocery store. The abundance of options tantalizes the senses. From a creamy milk chocolate fudge to a 72% dark chocolate and raspberry bar, the vast flavor and brand choices appeal to those with a sweet tooth all along the spectrum to those that prefer the bitter earthiness of the bean. Yet, the ubiquity of chocolate’s presence overshadows the precariousness that cacao farmers face in producing chocolate for a global market.

El Cacao invites us to look at the story of one place where chocolate begins: at a farm in a lush tropical forest of Bocas del Toro, Panama. Here, we meet the farmer Samuel Murillo and learn about the complex and laborious process of preparing cacao to sell on the global market. Despite chocolate’s ubiquity, the cacao plant itself is dependent upon specific climatic conditions within a particular geographic area 10 degrees north and south of the equator. Concern over ethical and sustainability dimensions of cacao production led to the creation of the third-party certification label “Fair Trade.” Introduced in the late 1980s, Fair Trade claims to guarantee that a product is supporting a sustainable model of food production. These products, like bananas, coffee, and chocolate, are priced higher than the same products without the certification label because the farmer receives a higher price than the market value. The premise appears straightforward enough. Yet, for all the hype, does Fair Trade deliver on its promise of improving the livelihoods of farmers? El Cacao provides an intimate portrayal of the realities of producing cacao under the Fair Trade label.

El Cacao is an insightful film that interweaves the economic, social, and environmental complexities of the chocolate commodity food chain. The film does so subtly, relying solely on Samuel’s narration. In effect, the audience is brought into his world and into conversation to learn about the multifarious challenges that cacao farming entails. In recent years, the cacao harvest has been hit hard by the fungus Moniliophthora roreri, which causes Frosty Pod Rot disease and reduces production yields. Samuel remorsefully explains that he used to bring 40 bags of cacao to the cooperative, but due to the proliferation of the disease, that number has dropped to 4 bags. Highly contagious, Frosty Pod Rot leads to spoilage of the fruit and overall yield losses of 80%. In addition to environmental impacts, the film highlights the social implications of cacao production. The film shows the different stages of cacao production from harvesting, to drying, fermenting, sorting, and transporting to the cooperative. These processes are labor-intensive and can entail risk of injury, such as cutting a hand when opening up the pods with a machete.

At the end of the film, Samuel and his wife Juana are at the cooperative to sell their cacao. The cooperative was founded in 1952 and is the oldest agricultural cooperative in Panama, with 1500 farmer families as members, who practice sustainable agroforestry and sell their cacao beans to the cooperative. The cooperative organizes the marketing, sale, and distribution of the cacao beans, primarily to buyers in Switzerland. During their visit at the cooperative, Samuel is told by the inspector that some of the cacao had mold, while the other bags were given a lower quality rating, because the beans were not dry enough. Samuel does not agree with the assessment. Watching the scene unfold, it’s clear that this outcome  has grave impacts for their family, as less is being earned, despite the same amount of arduous work being put in. “They say ‘the Co-op is yours.’ But we don’t get anything out of it,” states Samuel flatly. The next scene brings the audience back to the farm amid the lush rainforest and to Samuel, who provides his perspective as a farmer working within the Fair Trade system. “How can they talk about Fair Trade and then take my high quality and organic cacao just like that? I should be receiving more. To me it’s not fair. Well, they say it is, but… not for us.” These words permeate and offer a reflection point to consider both the nuances and wider implications of the Fair Trade label.

“If you want to view paradise, simply look around and view it. Anything you want to, do it. Wanna change the world? There’s nothing to it.”This familiar tune titled “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka takes on a saccharine quality in light of viewing El Cacao. We learn from the film that “voting with your dollars” is an illusory panacea and that there is more to it in changing the chocolate commodity food chain. While El Cacao demonstrates that systemic changes are needed for cacao farmers to earn fair wages, in No Place to Grow, change is unwelcome and threatens the livelihood of a community.

“Every season gives us something different. We also have seasons in our life,” exclaims Don Emilio Martinez Castañeda, a gardener who has spent over twenty years stewarding a half acre of land in Santa Cruz, California. Seasons are synonymous with change, yet the film No Place to Grow, demonstrates that social change does not follow the same climatic cycles governing the land. The film provides an intimate portrayal of the Herculean efforts to save Jardin de la Communidad de la Playa (The Beach Flats Garden) from development by the Seaside Company. Established in 1993, the garden is a community center for the Mexican and Latinx gardeners that provides access to healthy and culturally relevant food, along with hosting public events. The garden is an island of natural beauty and calm in a concrete-dominated landscape, where corn, beans, squash, nopales, tomatoes, chayote, and various herbs are grown and offered to the community. Yet its existence is threatened by a seemingly imminent urban development project.

Seasons mark the ebbs and flows of social change as the story unfolds. Fall is a flurry of outreach to newspapers and local television stations to raise awareness and mobilize public support for the garden. Community members from children to elders speak at a town hall meeting to educate local politicians about the importance of the garden as a community pillar. At a City Hall meeting, one representative exclaims surprise that so many people showed up. Winter delivers the devastating City decision that allows Seaside Company to take over part of the garden. An agreement is made to protect mature fruit trees, including the oldest peach tree in the county, and a lease to continue gardening on 60% of the land. Yet, Park and City workers arrive one day and destroy the trees and five member plots. Spring brings a sense of renewal, with community members coming together to break ground and create a new garden, with newly sprouted seedlings and the potential they hold.

The film poignantly demonstrates how the garden is a site of contestation, where a confluence of influences intersect, including food security, land access, gentrification, and cultural marginalization. The viewer learns how power dynamics play an instrumental role in determining how social change(s) are articulated, and the inspiration of community mobilization in shaping a future trajectory that reflects their aspirations for the future. Mirando al future (looking towards the future).

El Cacao and No Place to Grow demonstrate that these stories of food injustice share the same roots of economic inequality, neoliberal ideology, and uneven power relations, which transcend differences of geographic location or a specific food commodity system. The films invite the viewer to trace these common threads that shape food system trajectories and to consider the wider implications of our everyday food choices. Both films are suited to complement lectures for courses on the food and culture studies, the sustainability of food production systems, food justice, community development, and public policy.

For more information about the status of El Jardin de la Communidad:

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