Ashlander visits Belize to research fair trade cocoa

Justiniano Bol is a stocky young man of medium height, with jet-black hair and a winning smile. His two incisors are set in gold, and he's wearing jeans, a shirt and rubber boots. And he is the future of cocoa farming.

Cocoa farming is a family tradition for Bol. His grandfather, a short, skinny man with a fringe of white hair and a gap-toothed smile, whom I met on the way to the farm, helped found the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association in 1986. Bol's father helped him establish his first farm with 500 seedlings.

The tradition reaches even deeper. Bol, like many of his fellow cocoa farmers in southern Belize, belongs to the Mopan Maya. His ancestors grew cocoa in these parts 2,000 years ago. Just as it is today, cocoa was a highly valued crop then. Ancient Maya elites used it for ceremonial and ritual purposes. Cocoa consumption was carefully controlled by Maya nobles and areas of cocoa cultivation were fought over by powerful Maya kings. The farmers, not surprisingly, received the short end of the stick. They had to carry their tribute payments to those rulers one 50-pound load at a time.

The world of cocoa farmers has not changed much since then. After the Mayan monarchs came the Aztec emperors, the Spanish and British colonizers and, finally, the big chocolate companies. The story of child labor on West African cocoa farms is only the most recent example of the problems in the cocoa sector.

Organizations like the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association offer an alternative for cocoa farmers — fair trade. The fair-trade movement, although still relatively young, is one of the fastest growing movements that links producers and consumers around the world. Its basic principle is straightforward: Pay farmers of tropical products a guaranteed fair price so that they can send their children to school and provide a decent living for their families. Coffee was the first product to break into mainstream retailing, but the palette of fair-trade products now spans a wide variety of items from wine to flowers and fruit juice.

In Europe, fair-trade products are present in virtually all supermarkets. In the U.S., acceptance has lagged behind, but Fairtrade USA reported that sales of fair-trade products in the U.S. topped $1 billion in 2007.

Which brings us back to Justiniano Bol. The cocoa he sells to the TCGA will bring a guaranteed price of $1.13 per pound. That translates to almost $2,500 per metric ton, about the current price at the New York futures market. The difference, though, is that the price is guaranteed irrespective of what the futures market does. In Ghana, for example, farmers receive only $1,384 per ton. Granted, their cocoa is not organic, but the organic premium does not amount to $1,200.

The guaranteed prices are crucial for Bol because running a cocoa farm requires much faith. All farming is a bet against the future. Farmers around the world plant their crops without knowing what will happen while they wait for their crops to mature. For cocoa farmers that bet is even riskier. The trees, once planted, don't bear fruit until three to five years later. Once matured, they live on for 50 or more years, representing a significant investment.

Knowing what he will get for his crop ahead of time makes such investments easier for Bol. In the meantime, he's planted plantain, banana and avocado and even some mahogany trees between his cocoa trees. They provide income and food in the short term but also offer shade for the cocoa trees as they mature.

Bol also serves as an extension agent for the TCGA. He regularly visits other members of the association and gives advice about cocoa farming and post harvest processing and certifies that they comply with the organic standards.

I call him the future of cocoa farming because he and his fellow young farmers in Belize buck a worrisome trend. Cocoa farmers around the world are getting old and few young farmers are taking their place. The average age of farmers at a cooperative I visited in Ghana was 50 years.

Young people eschew cocoa farming because it requires hard labor for rather uncertain return. Today's cocoa prices, adjusted for inflation, amount to only 37 percent of the price farmers received in the late 1970s. In addition, cocoa prices are very volatile. Between December 2007 and July 2008, world prices doubled only to drop again half that level by December 2008. It's little wonder young people, having watched the parents struggle against impersonal market forces, choose a different vocation.

The TCGA and Bol are examples of a counter trend. Cooperatives in Ghana, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere are duplicating the fair-trade model. Just last month Cadbury announced that its Dairy Milk bar, the most popular chocolate bar in the UK, will be made exclusively with fair-trade cocoa.

In the end, consumers have the ultimate control. We can choose a fai-rtrade product and ensure that farmers are paid a fair price. Along the way, we may actually learn something about who makes the raw materials for our favorite treat. Here in Ashland, we can enjoy the products of Bol's labor in the form of the Maya Gold Chocolate bar made by Green & Black, the fair-trade partner for the TCGA. There are other options as well. Ashland's own Dagoba sells several fair-trade bars, Divine Chocolate made from Ghanian fair-trade beans and Equal Exchange chocolate is available in several local stores.

Anyone wanting to learn more about cocoa and the people who grow it in Belize can visit the Toledo CacaoFest, which takes place in Punta Gorda, Belize May 22 through 24. More information is available at

Ashlander Michael Niemann has a PhD in international studies. He's writing a book about the politics and economics of chocolate, and his trip to Belize was part of his research for that book. He's currently a visiting professor of international studies at Southern Oregon University.

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