For many years, Asdrúbal and Segundo lived and fought in the rugged jungles of southwestern Colombia as members of the FARC guerrilla group at war with the state.
Now, in those same jungles around Meta and Tumaco, they are turning cocoa beans into gourmet chocolate bars to create livelihoods for their communities and heal the wounds of the past as Colombia seeks to build on the 2016 peace deal ending five decades of conflict that killed 260,000 people.
Under the brand Manigua de Paz (Jungle of Peace), the project brings together nearly 100 former combatants of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) across two sprawling cocoa cooperatives. The two areas are among the most vulnerable in Colombia and remain dangerous with the presence of various armed groups.
“The hands of the ex-guerrillas are not only made to use weapons but also to work on something very special like cacao, which for us is love, life and peace,” said Segundo, who is part of the Nueva Esperanza del Pacífico cooperative in the coastal city of Tumaco.
“That gives us the capacity to generate future employment for the communities and to leave a legacy for our children.”
The cooperatives control every step of the process – from growing the beans to overseeing production of four varieties of chocolate made with 70% cacao. The packaging was designed by the communities themselves with images and colours that represent their culture and environment.
“We were involved in a military track and now we have moved on and live a totally democratic life,” said Asdrúbal, from the Judío Errante cooperative in Meta. “We put down our weapons and we are thinking about different things, such as looking for a way to live with dignity and economic sustainability.”
The bean-to-bar business – incubated by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue (HD) and the Peace Dividend Initiative (PDI) since 2020 – has big plans for its organic chocolate.
The bars are already sold directly by the cooperatives but Manigua de Paz aims to start expanding into retail outlets in Colombia this year to reach a potential market of 52 million residents and the 4 million tourists who visit each year.
Online sales and a push into Europe are also in the plans.
“From humble beginnings, Manigua de Paz is a clear and encouraging sign of success in harnessing market forces for peace in Colombia’s still fragile environment,” said Judyta Wasowska, HD’s regional director for Latin America and the chair of PDI.
“It helps to connect the promise of peace with sustainable income and foster trust among communities – with an economic dialogue – so they can move beyond many years of conflict with real opportunities for cooperation and development.”
On top of the livelihood dividends, the project aims to change negative perceptions around former FARC combatants, to reduce the risk of them returning to violence and – by enhancing investment in the region – to reshape the narrative around Colombia and its conflicts.
“Creating a viable business in Meta and Tumaco is a testament to the hard work the communities have done and the risks they’ve taken,” said Liam Foran, the chief executive officer of PDI.
“Just as Manigua de Paz is adding value by making finished chocolate from cacao, it is transforming the conflict narrative into a model for sustainable and ethical businesses that will help to lock in long-term peace for Colombia. Together with our mediation partners, this successful project gives us confidence about expanding our innovative approach to other areas of the country.”