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The bittersweet story of cocoa

Cocoa is a delicate and sensitive crop, and growing it is a hard task, which leads to pressure being placed on cocoa suppliers.

In September 2000, a British television documentary highlighted the desperate plight of workers on cocoa farms in West Africa. Channel 4’s Slavery series exposed the darker side of cocoa production - an industry where the very young work without pay, without the freedom to leave their job, and are often beaten and intimidated by their employers.

Since then, the state of the global cocoa industry has become harder and harder to ignore. With every report, further evidence of hazardous working conditions, lack of adequate education and links to trafficking and slavery comes to light.

Cocoa beans are part of the soft commodity market, with every country in the world utilising the bean in one form or another. Demand, therefore, is unrelentingly high. It’s also a raw product with a considerably long gestation period - it takes three years for a cocoa bush to become productive. Finally, cocoa crops are highly susceptible to climatic shifts, particularly temperature change, rainfall and the health of common pollinator species.

As a result, producers can experience dramatic fluctuations in the value of crops between yields. The International Labour Organisation and The International Labour Rights Forum (among other groups) have revealed that in many communities, exploitation and child labour is rife. Along the Western African coast, in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, entire communities are being forced into accepting below-poverty wages.

Now, driven by a desire to create a sustainable, fair and proactive future for cocoa production, organisations and communities are working together to improve the situation.

While conflict in Colombia has seemed inescapable, cocoa has offered some salvation to over 2,000 people of the Comunidad de Paz de San José de Apartadó. In 1997, in the midst of a warzone ravaged by the army, leftist guerrilla fighters and right-wing paramilitary, these small-scale producers pledged themselves to nonviolence. The state response was to withdraw all support, including mains, electricity, schooling and healthcare.

Visiting in 2015, members of Peace Brigade International (PBI) watched as the community unrolled a large white banner emblazoned with the names of more than 350 members, friends and neighbours killed (by guerrilla groups, the army, or the paramilitaries) since the community began.

Yet, alongside it, were 18 cakes to celebrate the successes of the previous 18 years too.

“The people that we accompany in Colombia are real life heroes,” says Dan Slee, a volunteer observer for PBI. “These are people who try to live in peace in the middle of an armed conflict, who stick up for the most vulnerable members of society and who take on cases of injustice despite the death threats, persecution and defamation that they receive.”

The community now grow bananas, avocados, corn, rice, beans, plantains and cocoa beans to eat and sell. Cocoa beans are their main cash crop. Through their ecological research centre and Farmers’ University, they have also learnt and incorporated permaculture techniques such as mixed planting, so they don’t need to buy and use pesticides and fertilisers.

Meanwhile, in the Dominican Republic, the 1,500 farmers that make up The Organic Growers Dominican Foundation (FUNDOPO) are spread further apart. Many live in distant, often mountainous regions, where poverty is widespread, and the average farm size is below the two-hectare mark (that’s less than two international rugby fields). Their remote locations mean traditional cultivation techniques trump mechanisation and the cocoa plants are all organic, often found weaving among citrus fruits that are sold at local markets to supplement the farmers’ incomes.

A farmer working alone would likely find it exceedingly difficult to collect a fair price for their beans, let alone purchase pricey tools or improve local infrastructure. However, since the official creation of FUNDOPO in 2007, the Fair Trade premium that producers earn has meant that they can now fund projects as a collective, building community halls and providing facilities to collect safe drinking water.

It’s here in the Dominican Republic that a third supplier of Fair Trade, organic cocoa butter is found too. The National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers (CONACADO) produce a non-deodorised variety of butter that boasts a strong chocolatey scent and beautiful feel on the skin.

Much like over at FUNDOPO, the 10,000 CONACADO members have together invested the additional income gained from going Fair Trade into warehouse facilities, school repair projects and technical training, all of which improve the quality of their cocoa yields.

Each cocoa community has its own story to tell.


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