Doug Moe: Man, machine and chocolate in the Amazon

Michael “Mickey” Kienitz, Madison’s globetrotting photographer, and his friend, the drone, were in Ecuador earlier this month, capturing astonishing images of how cacao beans for chocolate are grown and harvested in the Amazon rain forest.

Only one of them came back.

Happily, it was Kienitz. His drone — an unmanned aerial vehicle, equipped with a small, swiveling video camera — which had been acting strange in the Amazon’s heat and humidity, drifted off one day and never returned.

It wasn’t a disaster. Kienitz already had a bunch of footage, and other, more conventional cameras with him in Ecuador. For that matter, he had four more drones back in Madison.

What the drone that went missing does is lend a futuristic flair to what is a wonderful human story, one that involves a Madison nonprofit celebrating its 30th anniversary; a decorated Madison chocolatier who knows great chocolate when she tries it; an enterprising Ecuadoran cooperative of cacao growers; and, not least, Kienitz, 63, who, after years of photographing war zones, has found gratification documenting men and women following their better instincts.

Kienitz has a long association with Working Capital for Community Needs (WCCN), a Madison-based nonprofit founded in 1984 that empowers low-income Latin American entrepreneurs and small-scale farmers.

In 2009, Kienitz traveled to Guatemala to photograph people in businesses helped by micro-loans from WCCN.

The enterprises varied in size from medium to a woman who made jam with her daughter. There was a tortilla-making operation begun with less than $20. When he returned to Madison, Kienitz displayed the photographs in a Pyle Center exhibit he called “Seeds of Change.”

Earlier this year, WCCN reached out to Kienitz. They wanted him to travel to Ecuador to document WCCN’s partnership with the Kallari Association, a cooperative of some 850 small family farms in the Ecuadoran Amazon whose members have moved from simply growing cacao beans to creating their own chocolate. The WCCN and Kallari partnership has received two grants totaling more than $160,000 to help make that, and other non-timber income-generating activities, happen.

Kienitz traveled to Ecuador this month with Jeanne Duffy, director of North American operations for WCCN. His mission was to document the chocolate process from bean to bar — and confection — with photographs and footage that will also be used in a short documentary celebrating the WCCN’s 30th anniversary.

Madison has at least one chocolate vendor who uses Kallari chocolate. Nationally acclaimed chocolatier Gail Ambrosius was in her Atwood Avenue shop sometime around Thanksgiving 2012 when an Ecuadoran representative of the Kallari Association stopped in with a sample. You might say Ambrosius liked it.

“I ordered 500 pounds of bulk chocolate on the spot,” she recalled recently. Last spring, Ambrosius traveled to Ecuador with her son and general manager, Isaac May, to see where it all starts, including visiting a farm on a small island in the Napo River.

Kienitz plans to document Ambrosius at work in her Madison shop, as an example of how the chocolate-making process is completed. In Ecuador, Kallari also produces individually wrapped bars, and Ecuador, of course, is where the process begins. Kienitz photographed women picking the cacao beans that grow in football-shaped pods. He also photographed them in their homes.

“I wanted to show how the people who make your chocolate live,” he said.

The Kallari Association uses a factory in Quito to make its chocolate, but the hope is the grant money through the WCCN partnership will help them establish their own.

Kienitz brought his drone to Ecuador — he totes it in a black briefcase — so he could capture a unique aspect of cacao farming. Unlike much North American agriculture, they grow various plants — cacao, bananas and lemon grass, for instance — in the same space, at differing heights. The practice is best photographed from the air, yet close to the ground. Kienitz used a drone.

He first learned about the technology as it applied to photography a couple of years ago while watching a video of a drone demonstration at a Las Vegas convention. The drone went out the convention door and down the Vegas strip.

“Where do I get one?” Kienitz said.

Since acquiring his first drone — as mentioned, he now has four, three more than his wife thinks necessary — Kienitz has used them whenever practical in his photography. One client was a Milwaukee architectural firm that wanted to record, from a variety of angles, a soccer field it had put on top of a parking ramp. The drone — Kienitz operates it from a hand-held battery-operated controller with two joysticks — was perfect for the job. He said the drones cost about $900, plus $400 for the camera.

It was great in the Amazon, too, at least until it disappeared. Kienitz wasn’t too broken up. He came back to Madison with a terrific story of some highly unusual entrepreneurs. He also brought back a sack full of chocolate bars, chocolate so glorious it could make a drone change direction, if only a drone liked chocolate.

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