On rainforest conservation, a nomadic existence, and $300 chocolate bars.
It’s a typically hot day in the quiet beach town of Canoa, Ecuador. Jerry Toth sits on the balcony of a room at a small posada, overlooking a river that flows towards the Pacific ocean. He wears shorts, no shirt or shoes. The sound of waves crashing at the beach nearby can be heard, and Jerry watches the waves break, determining that it’s a good day for a late afternoon surf.
“We were dreamers,” he says, as coconut palms and tropical almond trees sway gently in a light breeze. “The other co-founders and I talked about sustainable development and ecological conservation. We felt the need to take action, actually do those things, and do them well.”
He watches a large Iguana slowly move through the branches of a nearby palm tree.
“From that initial impulse we started the foundation. It took 6 or 8 months to build the research station in the rainforest. We built it using hand tools.”
Tell me more about your non-profit foundation.
Our main project is a 1,300-acre ecological reserve in coastal Ecuador, called the Jama-Coaque Reserve.
What is it like?
It’s extremely mountainous, there is no flat land.
The weather is, in my opinion, as close to ideal as anywhere on earth. We have these 74 degree days, with low hanging cloud cover over the forest. You get absorbed in what you’re doing, and have no idea what time it is. It’s like time stops, all day is this cool, gray, mysterious lighting.
There is no electricity, no internet, no cell phones.
What goes on at the Reserve, day to day?
Quite a bit of scientific research. There are wildlife researchers, biologists studying Ornithology, Herpatology, Botany, doing primate studies. Also people studying Agroecology. Sustainable and organic food production, permaculture design.
We have a variety of vegetation, birds, frogs, snakes, and monkeys. More endangered or threatened bird species than any other designated ‘Important Bird Area’ in Ecuador.
How many people are usually staying there at a time?
Anywhere from 2 to 15 interns and researchers, plus our full time staff.
Where do researchers and interns come from?
All over. Mostly North America and Europe. We have relationships with colleges and other organizations.
What do you enjoy about being there?
I love planting trees, watching them grow, eating fruit from a tree that I planted. We plant thousands each year, we have over 50 varieties of fruit trees.
Work at the reserve is physical manual labor, and it feels great to work with my body and be connected with my senses.
At the end of a hard days work, I go to a stream where there’s nobody around, and take off my clothes and swim in the river and drink water - at the same time! It’s one of my favorite things. It has magical powers, that water.
What surprises people on their first visit to the reserve?
The birds are so loud in the morning. Either the birds or the howler monkeys wake you at first light. You put on rubber boots, grab a machete, and that’s how every single day starts.
There are more insects than even a very creative person could possibly imagine. Everything is open air. Bats and birds fly through, animals try to steal the bananas we have hanging up.
Wait a minute - a machete??
It’s the single most useful tool, by far. You can chop weeds around seedlings, do building jobs, open fruit, clean trails, and for general protection.
For years, I used a shovel to plant trees, but I’ve ditched the shovel and I just use a machete.
When I walk in the forest without a machete, I feel naked, it’s weird.
People get used to it quickly. I’ve been doing this over 10 years, but even people that started in the last 6 months, they’re already used to it.
Are there dangerous insects or animals?
Yes. There are poisonous snakes that can kill you. Coral snake, Fer-de-Lance, and Bushmaster, the largest pit viper in the world.
There’s the bullet ant. Also a white fluffy caterpillar, that looks like a soft cotton ball that you want to rub against your face. But if a single hair brushes against your finger, your arm goes numb, and immediately you need to take antihistamines and anti-inflammatories. It’s happened to me, it was extremely painful.
Overall it’s a mellow forest, not many things can kill you.
You have another big project that started at the Reserve, correct?
Yes, a chocolate company called To’ak.
How did that venture begin?
We found cacao trees growing in the forest reserve, and started making chocolate in our house. Everything was done by hand.
We harvested cacao, and roasted it over an open fire. It was such a physical, tactile, experience. The aroma, when you grind the beans, is SO powerfully floral. It’s a totally different thing than chocolate I remember eating as a kid.
The idea that chocolate comes from a tree is, for a lot of people, an interesting revelation.
It sounds like this is a real passion of yours.
It is. When I first started studying cacao farming, we discovered we had Nacional cacao trees, the rarest cacao variety on earth, that’s native to Ecuador. And the province we’re in, Manabi, in the chocolate world is like Burgundy in the wine world.
I started the chocolate company with Carl Schweizer and our friend Servio Pachard, who’s a 4th generation cacao farmer.
Not everyone has the benefit of being able to pull a cacao pod off a tree. We want to bring people into the process, to the extent that it’s possible.
How do you do that?
We package our chocolate in Spanish Elm Wood boxes - the same wood used to ferment our cacao. Every bar has a roasted cacao bean in the middle, to remind people that chocolate comes from trees. We include a 116 page booklet telling the story of the history of this variety, how it’s grown, how we process the beans.
To’ak chocolate sells for around $300 per bar. CNBC, CNN, and Forbes have written it up as the world’s most expensive chocolate. How did you end up with your prices?
For this to be viable, we have to charge a price that covers the costs.
We go to great lengths to create as perfect an expression of chocolate as possible. Everything is done beyond meticulously, borderline obsessively.
We’re sourcing from a very limited base of trees, a variety on the brink of extinction. We spend considerable time and resources preserving the Nacional variety, planting trees, doing DNA analysis and field work, grafting, managing nurseries and seedlings.
The price has also been useful in forcing people to think of chocolate in a different way.
Cacao was sacred in every culture it touched, for thousands of years, until the last century when chocolate became a mass produced commodity. We wanted to break that pattern, and do something that would stop people in their tracks. Provoke a strong reaction.
Our aim is elevating Ecuadorian dark chocolate to the level of vintage wine or aged Scotch whisky.
Have people been receptive?
The level of support that we’ve received surprises me. A lot of people have embraced it. Our To’ak loyalists from across the world are just as passionate about this as we are.
It sounds like you love everything about this, the trees, the process, offering people a part of the reserve. Was this done with the purpose of making money, benefitting the forest, or something else?
I started the chocolate company because the idea was fascinating, and I wanted to create something special.
To’ak is more of an artistic impulse, than an altruistic impulse, or even a business impulse.
If someone is dead-set on making money, I don’t think chocolate is the way to do it. This is a passion.
You seem to be on the move quite a bit with these projects.
I have a theory that in a past life, I was a nomad. It feels natural to be moving between places.
Where have you been recently?
Earlier this year I was in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and San Francisco for tastings and chocolate related business meetings.
In Ecuador, I rotate between the Reserve, our cacao farms, the office in Quito, and here in Canoa where I can work and surf.
Where did you grow up, and how did you end up in Ecuador?
I was born near Chicago. The winters really impressed upon me the allure of an endless summer.
I studied at Cornell, and then worked for 6 months at a bank in New York. I knew, before the first day, I was not meant to do that. I resigned and went to South America, and I have been here the majority of the last 17 years.
Did you have a future plan when you went to South America?
I dove in headlong, without any expectations for the future.
It just felt right. And that emboldens you to keep going. You follow your heart and make adjustments along the way.
The choices I’ve made were all based on instinct and intuition.
What did you do when you first arrived?
I moved around, and worked a series of informal jobs, in several places.
Eventually I took a job writing for a magazine, Adbusters. It’s a sociopolitical magazine out of Vancouver.
I was very politically active at the time and I was excited to be a part of it.
How did that job lead you to starting the reserve?
I felt like I was writing about things, as opposed to actually doing the things I was advocating.
I met the co-founders of the Reserve, Isabel and Bryan, in Chile in 2005. Starting the foundation was our way of putting our deeds where our mouth is.
The three of you built an amazing place together.
I’m grateful that we did. It’s a wild, beautiful place I’m lucky to spend time in.
You told me a long time ago, that protecting the environment was the most important issue that existed. Do you still believe that?
My thoughts on that are complicated.
I was reading a really interesting book, ‘Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm’. It made a point that resonated with me.
Humans talk about how we’re destroying the earth - but the earth is going to be just fine. Humanity is what’s in trouble.
What we’re really undermining, is our ability to sustain ourselves. It’s already being felt, and it’s going to increasingly be felt.
When we started the Reserve, we believed we could change the whole paradigm of how people engaged with the natural world.
Now I think one organization is not going to change that. The best we can do is protect one very special part of the world.
What else is different about you from 10 or 20 years ago?
I didn’t need to wear glasses 10 or 20 years ago!
And I didn’t know what it was like to truly love somebody. I also didn’t know what it was like to truly suffer.
Are you happy with what you’ve achieved with the reserve?
Well, the tendency people have is to look for happiness outside of ourselves.
It takes different forms - a partner, job, money, fame, drugs, it can be anything.
Looking for happiness outside of oneself is not going to yield results. Ultimately, what needs to be worked out is internal, not external.
I used to think happiness was a goal, but I no longer think that.
Why did you change your mind on that?
I guess I had a reassessment of the purpose to life.
I’ve recently focused on finding meaning instead of happiness. Happiness is fleeting, it comes and goes, sometimes against your will.
Meaning is something you can anchor to.
Do you feel that you have meaning in your life?
Yes, I do. I am able to spend my time and energy on things that I’m passionate about.
Have things in your life happened on purpose, or by accident?
That’s a question I spend a lot of time thinking about.
I don’t believe in accidents, which is something that I’ve grappled with very intensely.
Is there anything that you’re afraid of in life?
Yes. Car accidents, heights, blood, and monotony.
I’m a far less fearful person than I used to be. Whatever could be done to me, is something that I will have to experience and endure, and it will be for a reason.
At least, that’s what I say now. I’ll probably cry like a baby the next time I get hurt, physically or otherwise.
Any words of advice you’d like to share?
My advice would be don’t take yourself seriously, but take your passions and interests very seriously.
Also, the difference between feeling grateful, or resentful and angry, is a choice you can make. Choosing the former is more productive.
And one more thing. If you’re going to love, do it fully and without reservation.