This 20 Year-Old Chef And Farmer Gave Bicolano Farmers Hope Through Cacao

When tragedy struck, she planted a cacao tree.

The future is bright with young leaders like Chef Mabulo leading the way.
Photo by Courtesy of UN Environment Programme

When super typhoon Nina hit Bicol in 2016, worsening on Christmas day itself, almost everything was wiped out. In fact, it "destroyed 80% of all agricultural land," in Chef Louise Mabulo's town alone. It displaced thousands of families. Desperate and hungry farmers wound up selling their land for a quick buck, or worse, cutting down trees. All in all, it claimed 13 lives and caused P6.2 B in damages. "It felt really hopeless looking at it, but it was also an opportunity to start fresh," Chef Louise said. 

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Tall, proud coconut trees, the pillar of Bicolano cuisine, were all bent down, ruined. There, amid the ruins, though, stood a humble beacon of hope: "Cacao trees were the only ones that weren't tumbled over."

The demand for chocolate will perhaps never die down.
Photo by Pixabay

The Cacao Project was born

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After some research, cacao trees fit the bill as the best solution to their landscape and climate. These disaster-proof trees could survive floods, winds, and typhoons-expected to grow even worse with climate change. "It became a matter of not just rebuilding what we had before, but creating livelihood [initiatives] that are more sustainable and disaster-resilient." Processed cacao, it turns out, is a product that's sure to give farmers decent wages.

"It's one of the most well-loved foods around the world, and yet, in the next forty years, we can run out of chocolate because of the current unsustainable farming practices and because of the global deficit of a hundred thousand tons., Chef Louise said at the Global Landscapes Forum for the Plenary, Agriculture and Forests: Supplying Success in Landscapes at the United Nations.

She believes that chocolate bars cannot only be sustainable, but can also "save a community from a cycle of poverty, from food insecurity, and to use it to protect the environment and establish disaster resiliency."

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"After some research and study, we found that Cacao trees were better suited to our climate and landscapes, and were more durable in times of storms in comparison to the existing crops." With this information, Chef Louise held training programs reaching up to 200 Bicolano farmers. She showed them how to grow it and process it, then gave away the seedlings. Along with the cacao trees, farmers also plant compatible crops like bok choy, okra, pumpkins, chilies, and eggplants.

The Cacao Project's impact

Today, 70,000 cacao trees have been planted over 70 hectares of land, intercropped with current ecosystems, and rooted in barren and deforested land. It's improved land fertility, moisture retention, the forest canopy, and even helped revived two streams. More importantly, the training that The Cacao Project has been able to provide has helped "educate the farmers about the value of their work, and their value to the community, and the worth of their harvests."

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"In the Philippines, there's a stigma against farming, that's often associated to poverty, vulnerability and unsustainability," Chef Louise says. That's where people like Chef Louise and other young people come in to help break that cycle. By entering the agricultural industry, their new ideas will bring a breath of fresh air to agriculture.

Chef Louise receives the prestigious award from UN.
Photo by Courtesy of Chef Louise Mabulo
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The Cacao Project has landed Chef Louise one of the most prestigious awards for young enviromentalists: the Young Champions of the Earth Prize by The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). As one of the seven awarded young environmentalists, Chef Louise, will be able to bring her cause even further. "My biggest passion in life would be to help my community," she says, and she does. The attention and prize of the award will help The Cacao Project in helping their farmers achieve their long term goal to churn out chocolate products such as chocolate bars, cacao liquor, and cacao vinegar.

With cacao ingredients soon-to-become more accessible, we're expecting some changes in the culinary tapestry. According to Chef Louise, "Bicolanos have been making their own tablea for some time now. Some of my fondest memories of my own Bicolana Grandmother, is when she harvests some of the pods of cocoa, and starts to dry them out in the sun. Then, I know I can expect a warm cup of hot chocolate in a few days time, since she makes tablea from scratch herself." With a brilliant chef like Chef Louise in the ranks of Bicolanos though, we know that cacao will soon be weaved even further into their contemporary cuisine. "Currently, cacao is underutilized in Bicolano cuisine, but pairs very well with the dominant flavors of coconut and chilies."

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As young as she is, Chef Louise, now 20 years old, is no rookie when it comes to success. She was only 12 when she landed the fifth place in Junior Master Chef, she then went on to win the Disciples des Escoffier Young Talent Trophy Asia for Best Dessert Award, and then was soon the youngest person to receive a National Certificate in Cookery from the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). It's that passion in cooking that's also inspired her appreciation for growing her own food.

Chef Louise among the cacao trees she helped plant.
Photo by UN Environment Programme

How we can help, according to Chef Louise

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"Dare to feed the future," Chef Louise says with gravitas. We can do this when we "purchase sustainable, local produce, and support your local economy." In order for resilience to develop against typhoons, we need to help "secure our farmers' livelihoods and ensuring food security." What we do matters. "It's time we integrate sustainability into our lifestyles, into the way we produce and purchase food, and it's time to be better stewards to Creation."

A lot is on this young chef, farmer, delegate, and entrepreneur's plate, but still she declares, "there's always time to cook!" If you want a slice of Chef Louise's cooking, be sure to follow her on www.thereallouisemabulo.com where she announces culinary events she participates in or look through her recipes to try them yourself.

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