How a £1.50 chocolate bar saved a Mayan community from destruction

Green & Black's Maya Gold, the first British Fairtrade product, is more than an organic chocolate bar - it's the livelihood for a whole district of Belize. But with demand outstripping supply, could a newly discovered 19th-century cacao plantation be the answer?

Andrew Purvis
Sunday May 28, 2006

It is, quite literally, the poor man's Green & Black's - organic cacao from the forests of Belize, fermented, dried, roasted on a comal (a circular iron hot plate over a wood fire), shelled, then ground by hand in a machine similar to a household mincer.
'It's half a day's work,' says Cyrila Cho, the stout, broad-faced woman who has welcomed me into her home in San Felipe to see how brigadeiros are made. She warms the cacao with condensed milk, adding allspice, black pepper and tzibik (wild vanilla) plucked from a vine at the top of a tree by her 21-year-old daughter Anna-Marie.

When the mixture has cooled, Cyrila rolls it by hand into a large ball, and from this she fashions smaller balls the size of truffle chocolates. 'We sell them to hotels,' her daughter explains, 'and every day my little brother takes them to the school. The children love it.' A packet of eight costs one Belize dollar (about 28p), supplementing the family's income from their 30-acre farm, where the five of them (eight before three older children left home) grow corn, rice, cho-cho (ground foods), coffee, coconut and oranges, as well as the cacao from which the brigadeiros are made.

Mind you, spiced cacao is nothing new in the Toledo district of southern Belize. It goes back hundreds of years to the time of the ancient Maya, whose civilisation began around 2000BC and peaked in AD900. Kukuh, a cacao drink traditionally flavoured with ground black pepper, chilli and spices, and sweetened with forest honey, was consumed hot or cold by the Maya to give them strength.

Inside Cyrila Cho's kitchen (a shack, albeit with a gas cooker and a single low-energy lightbulb), I notice her distinctive Amerindian features, her wide face and sturdy physique reminiscent of a Maori or a Pacific islander, and pick up on her guttural Kekchi language. Compared to people I have met elsewhere in Central America, she speaks little Spanish and has few Hispanic traits. Like two-thirds of the population in this remote, humid, malarial district near the border with Guatemala, Cyrila is a living, breathing, kukuh-drinking, modern-day Maya Indian.

Suddenly, it occurs to me that Maya Gold - the name given by Green & Black's to its orange-and-spice chocolate bar, made with beans grown by Cyrila Cho and the other 940 members of the Toledo Cacao Growers' Association (TCGA) - is more than just a slick marketing gimmick alluding to a semi-mythical past. It may evoke images of ruined temples, ancient peoples and lost civilisations, but the name is also rooted in the here and now, a tribute to the Maya who produce cacao today.

On our bone-crunching drive along unmetalled roads from Punta Gorda, on the Caribbean coast, to San Antonio, high in lushly forested mountains, there is further evidence of the Maya legacy. All the farmers we meet share the same half-dozen surnames: Teck, Peck, Bol and three variations on a theme (Cho, Choc and Choco) that seem so improbably apt for cacao farmers that I almost laugh.

These names point to a common heritage yet the Maya - spread throughout the region, from the Yucatán Peninsula of Mexico to Honduras - have struggled to find a unified voice. Now, they have a Maya-language radio station in Toledo, where their numbers are concentrated. What they also share is a connection with the soil, the seasons and farming that marks them out as Maya - once the world's most advanced horticulturalists. Not only did they cultivate crops from wild plants (among them corn, tomatoes and capsicums) but cacao, cloned from a wild relative, was first fermented and traded here in southern Belize, the backbone of the Maya economy.

It was this heritage that impressed Craig Sams, the founder of Green & Black's, when he contacted the TCGA in 1993 to strike a deal with the Maya. In 1991, his Whole Earth company had launched a chocolate bar made with organic beans from Togo, West Africa. Two years later, a military coup sent him scurrying to find an alternative supplier. He ended up in Belize, where a combination of traditional farming practices (which today would be called organic) and crippling poverty meant most farmers had never used agrochemicals, preserving the organic integrity of the soil. The TCGA, then an association of 170 small growers owned and controlled by its members, had recently been plunged into crisis by tumbling market prices.

The stage was set for the birth of Maya Gold - a new chocolate bar, made with organic cacao from Belize, sold under the Green & Black's label. What Craig Sams offered the farmers was a five-year rolling contract, training in management and accountancy, help with Soil Association certification, a sizeable cash advance, plus a fixed price of Belize$1.25 per pound when the market price was only 55 cents.

The deal was accepted and, in 1994, Maya Gold was awarded the Fairtrade mark - the first British product to carry it. To this day, Green & Black's buys all the organic cacao produced in the Toledo district, paying the farmers a minimum price of US$1,600 (£900) per metric tonne, a Fairtrade premium of US$150 a tonne to be invested in social projects, and an organic premium of US$200 a tonne to cover the costs of Soil Association certification. It also funds 27 extension officers, local people trained in agronomy, nursery management, IT and administration. According to Gregor Hargrove, Green & Black's Canadian project manager, 92 cents of every dollar the farmers earn goes to their families - 'the highest return for any agricultural product'.

These days, 70 per cent of children in the outlying Maya villages benefit from secondary education in Punta Gorda, compared to 10 per cent before Green & Black's. Women, who are expert at fermenting and drying beans, have been empowered; villagers who used to live in rudimentary huts now have wooden bungalows with concrete floors; and the Maya - who comprise many, but not all, of the TCGA's members - find themselves with a new status and a new voice.

It's a rousing reminder of the benefits of Fairtrade, yet the Green & Black's paradox is this: while Maya Gold helped forge its reputation

for gourmet chocolate, it remains the only Fairtrade product in the company's 15-strong portfolio. The remaining 14 bars are simply organic, a far more promising niche. While UK sales of Fairtrade products grew by 40 per cent in 2005, organic chocolate bars are seeing a 60 per cent growth year on year - and in the US, the figure is 200 per cent.

Such has been the explosion in demand, Green & Black's now finds itself with a problem. It already buys every single bean produced by the TCGA, and a third of the world's total organic crop. As its sales grow by 72 per cent each year, fuelled by the allure of an ethical product that is also an indulgence, where will it find the rest? Already, some cacao for Maya Gold has had to be shipped from the Dominican Republic (with the approval of the Fairtrade Foundation) in order to meet rising demand. Such pressures, placed on some of the world's most desperate farmers, raise the possibility that some may buckle and bend the rules. Under less scrupulous management, cacao believed to be from a Fairtrade cooperative might not be, while beans thought to be organic might be treated with agrochemicals.

Most beans traded on the world market are far from organic, since cacao is the most heavily sprayed crop after cotton. In Ghana, every tree is doused - by law - with chemicals to keep diseases at bay. In Brazil, cacao is an industrialised crop grown on vast plantations in regimented rows, with insufficient shade and treated with artificial fertilisers and pesticides. This has not stopped, but rather spread, a pandemic of witches' broom - a fungal disease caused by poor tree maintenance, described by Craig Sams as 'the BSE of cacao' - across South America. 'They have pushed nature to its limits,' says Sams, 'and the industrialised model does not work.'

Cacao grown organically under 'shade trees' to mimic the forest environment is a rarer commodity, available only in small quantities. To put it in perspective, the TCGA's farmers manage to fill just one shipping container every eight weeks.

'Globally, we are talking about a desperate race to get organic up and running,' says Sams. In Belize alone, farmers will have to increase their output tenfold in the next five or six years, from 30 tonnes a year now to 300 by 2012, just to provide the cacao for use in Maya Gold. In Toledo district, they are planting trees as fast as they can, but it will take at least four years for them to bear fruit - too late for the demands of a voracious market. What is needed is a ready supply of mature organic trees - and last year, while visiting a Maya village close to the Guatemala border, Gregor Hargrove stumbled across just such a resource by chance.

'I was talking to one of the villagers right here,' he says, standing on a bridge over a stream in Dolores, a hamlet of thatched houses and a primary school scattered across an emerald clearing. 'I noticed rusting iron posts, machinery and a steam engine - all made in England.' Those posts were the drive shafts of an irrigation system dating from the 19th century. Colonial maps showed some kind of plantation near Dolores but the local Maya denied it. 'They said the maps were out of date, that the plantation never existed,' says Craig Sams, but Gregor Hargrove went to take a look.

What he and his extension officers discovered was mature cacao, swallowed by the jungle. When they used a Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) handset to map the pattern of the trees, they found the trunks were exactly 15ft apart - the optimum distance for a healthy cacao orchard, and a sure sign that they had found the Kramer Plantation, set up by a German colonist in 1875 and untouched since at least 1910.

In the stupefying heat and humidity, I set off on a two-mile hike to see the ghost plantation for myself. Ahead of me are Pedro Batz, the extension officer who knows Dolores best, and Sebastian Putul, the farmer who will tend it, tapping the bases of trees with their machetes to scare off snakes. As we scale the steep, muddy path and thread our way through a tangle of vines, strangler figs and sacred ceiba trees, we are startled by a ginger pig, a stray from the village, foraging loudly in the undergrowth.

Finally we emerge into a natural amphitheatre, a bowl-shaped depression in the earth lined with limestone boulders and littered with felled trunks and pruned branches where the forest has been cut away by hand. Dotted around the site are cacao trees with their long, spear-shaped leaves and oval pods ribbed like gourds.

'We've cleared 30 acres,' says Batz, the officer in charge of restoration. When mapping Dolores, he also found nutmeg trees planted at strict 30ft intervals - the best way to provide 30 per cent shade, the condition in which cacao thrives, and to encourage biodiversity. Other companion trees, providing a secondary income, are mahogany, banana, allspice, pacaya (an edible fern) and xate - a type of palm popular with florists.

While cacao saplings planted now would take until 2011 to produce beans, this orchard will provide 15 tonnes within a year. 'The poorest and most remote farmers, who had hardly heard of our programme, suddenly have a whole plantation on their hands with mature trees,' says Craig Sams. 'I'm surprised they're not fighting over it.'

All Sebastian Putul must do is keep the site clear of weeds and prune the trees to keep them healthy, giving them a flatter, broader shape so the pods grow lower down and are easier to harvest. 'It's very old cacao with a better genetic stock,' says

Gregor Hargrove. 'It pre-dates the whole system of cacao produced with agrochemicals.'

As we scramble over a ridge and pause on a hilltop, gazing across at the regimented rows of intensively-farmed corn across the border in Guatemala (in stark contrast to organic Belize), Hargrove makes an announcement. 'This was the biggest surprise of all,' he says, tapping the earth with his foot. 'The Kramer plantation sits right on top of an ancient Maya ruin - and you are only the fifth white man ever to have seen it.'

Among the stones we find shards of pottery, and Hargrove says there are rumours that jade is buried beneath. 'Isn't that a cenote, a Maya reservoir?' asks Sams, hurling a pebble into a crater. The stone does not strike water, so we conclude it is only a cave.

On the way back to Punta Gorda, we drive through villages called Otoxha, Santa Teresa, Corazon Creek and Jordan. There I am introduced to Petrona Caal, who is also doing her bit to satisfy the Maya Gold rush. With her two-year-old daughter, Lerisia, dangling from her neck, she tends hundreds of one-month-old trees wrapped in plastic and enclosed in a chickenwire shed - one of 12 nurseries in the district, cultivating 550,000 seedlings to be planted out in the next few years.

'I grew all of these myself,' she says proudly, 'and I've just finished watering them. I run the nursery with my husband, who is a cacao farmer; he's out there cutting down pods right now.' One day, she hopes, her seven children will help her.

'She's the bank, she keeps the money,' jokes Armando Choco, an administration manager with the TCGA. She got paid on Friday - Belize$250 for a month's work, amounting to US$3 (£1.70) a day, which in Toledo is 'good money'.

Even the local Tumul Kin technical school, another TCGA member, is joining the effort to keep the world supplied with Fairtrade organic chocolate. Its 20 pupils, aged 14 to 16, grow their own cacao and sell it to Green & Black's, and the school runs a cacao research centre on the site of an abandoned plantation. 'They're building a Kekchi-language radio station,' says Gregor Hargrove, 'and we hope they will make training videos for cacao growers. The equipment for that is on the way.'

Next day, our four-wheel-drive turns off the rutted Punta Gorda road and bumps its way across a field of citrus (oranges are Belize's main crop) to the Pac orchard, named after the owner of the land. There we meet Gregorio Choc, treasurer of the TCGA, a man with the same broad physique and features as Cyrila Cho. He talks us through the trials of farming cacao without chemicals and aggressive pest control.

'One problem is the kinkaju, or nightwalker, like a monkey that runs through the tops of trees eating the fruit,' he says. 'I asked Gregor for a rifle but he wouldn't give me one!' Woodpeckers, I learn, are scared off with slingshot while disease-resistant strains of cacao eliminate the need for fungicides. 'These trees have been bred so they are not susceptible to black pod,' says Choc, referring to an infection that ruins the crop. Monilia, a fungus, is kept at bay by pruning, allowing air to circulate.

Nevertheless, it is an uphill struggle. 'We are super-organic,' says Gregor Hargrove. 'We are attacked 12 months of the year by drought, by downpours, by every disease nature can throw at us. We have to be very vigilant and we have to be very pure.'

The result of the TCGA's labours at the Pac orchard is 200lbs a month of quality cacao, generating a cash surplus that goes direct to the local school. 'Our feeding programme pays for one meal a day for every pupil,' Gregorio Choc explains, 'which might be rice and beans, or caldo'- a spicy Maya soup usually made with chicken. 'If we make more profit, it will fund community projects: maybe a road or a library.'

The miracle is that this resource, too - 20 acres of highly productive trees arranged in tidy rows - was only recently reclaimed from the jungle in the manner of the Kramer Plantation. 'The owner planted 100 acres of trees,' Gregorio Choc explains, 'but when the price of cacao collapsed 14 years ago, he abandoned it completely.'

In fact, the price meltdown - and the landowner's fate - had been precipitated by the British government and USAID (the United States Agency for International Development), which in the 1980s hatched a plan to boost the fortunes of Toledo's cacao growers by providing bank loans for seed and agrochemicals. Communal reservation land was broken up so the deeds for plots could be used as collateral; forest was cleared and saplings planted less than 10ft apart - too narrow for shade trees to grow. The resulting diseases could be controlled only with fungicides, sold to farmers at a price. Instead of providing cacao varieties familiar to these subsistence farmers for centuries, the aid workers gave them alien hybrid seed. Meanwhile, Hershey - the US confectionery giant - pledged to buy all the cacao 'at a fair price'.

In 1992, the aid workers left and Hershey's agent progressively lowered the price, leaving farmers struggling to pay off huge debts. Many abandoned their farms to work as migrant orange pickers, sugar-cane cutters and shrimp farmers in the north, simply to service their loans and support their poverty-stricken families back home.

A year later, Craig Sams arrived to broker his deal with the TCGA, establishing Green & Black's as the saviour of third-world producers. That reputation has stuck, despite Maya Gold being the only Fairtrade bar it sells. The lion's share are non-Fairtrade, made with organic cacao from the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Madagascar as well as Belize. Why did the company, now owned by Cadbury Schweppes, not bite the ethical bullet and make all its chocolate Fairtrade?

'All our trading practices have been fair and ethical from the beginning,' argues Craig Sams, 'and being organic nearly always brings fairtrade practice in its wake. That's why our original 1993 deal with the TCGA required no modifications in order to get Fairtrade certification. We were already doing all they required, and more.'

Besides, the Fairtrade Foundation charges Green & Black's a commission of two per cent on its Maya Gold sales (amounting to £500,000 over 12 years), in order to carry the Fairtrade mark. In the Dominican Republic and elsewhere, says Sams, 'it's more effective for us to invest the money directly in supporting our suppliers'.

Gregor Hargrove puts it another way: 'Fairtrade guarantees a better deal for third-world producers, and a hell of a deal for first-world bureaucrats.' The foundation, he reveals, charges the TCGA (some of the poorest farmers in the world) for the cost of inspection visits by Fairtrade officials, including food, local travel and accommodation, plus a percentage levy on the cacao it ships to Europe. 'Right now, this hurts the TCGA,' says Sams, 'because it comes to about US$3,500 on their annual sales of US$70,000 or five per cent, a much higher fee than the two per cent we pay.' Split between 940 members, this amounts to less than US$4 per farmer, but Gregor Hargrove is lobbying Fairtrade to drop the charges completely.

Besides, for the new breed of 'super-ethical' consumer who cares about the environment and the provenance of food as well as social justice, Fairtrade is not necessarily the best model. As Sams points out: 'I could market a chocolate drink made with milk from cows fed on genetically-engineered grain and soybeans, pumped up with Monsanto's BST [bovine growth] hormone, sweetened with corn syrup from Roundup Ready [herbicide-tolerant GM] corn, and then use Fairtrade cacao powder and qualify for Fairtrade certification.'

That is why some of Green & Black's competitors have embraced 'organic and fair' schemes such as Kaoka (in France) and Rapunzel (in Germany), and why others are looking at a new ethical trademark being developed by the Soil Association. If Green & Black's did hitch all its chocolate bars to a single ethical mark, 'it would probably be a 100 per cent organic-based system', says Sams. 'I realise this undermines the monopoly of Fairtrade, and that is one reason why we have held back.'

Critics of Green & Black's - and of its new owner Cadbury in particular - say spurning Fairtrade saves the multinational money by avoiding the Foundation's two per cent levy and enabling it to buy at depressed market prices with no fixed minimum for growers. Craig Sams refutes this: 'In the Dominican Republic, we pay the farmers of the Conacado cooperative US$500 per tonne over the New York price, the standard procedure for organic producers, and they are very happy with it.'

Justino Peck, chairman of the TCGA, fully endorses the Fairtrade mark for the social stability it brings. 'If not for the Fairtrade deal, a lot of farmers would have moved away,' he believes, 'breaking up families and communities. They would have to go away and work on shrimp or citrus farms because there is no other industry here. Being able to sell a product to a definite market means we can stay.'

In the village of San Jose, in the Maya Mountains, where Justino Peck and his family live, I can see why he might want to. On the concrete floor of his thatched house, his wife Christina is cooking rice and beans - a Belize staple - over a fire while Griselda, aged three, the youngest of their seven children, plays in a sunny spot outside.

I ask Justino how realistic it is that the farmers of Toledo district can rise to the challenge of supplying the organic market. 'In the next two to three years,' he reckons, 'we might be harvesting 175,000lbs a year,' (about 80 metric tonnes, roughly in line with the estimates provided by Green & Black's). Bar the odd discovery of a fully fledged colonial plantation, what can the farmers do to meet those targets?

'They need to keep maintaining their orchards,' says Peck. 'They must clean their farms, prune on time so they get higher yields, and prune to reduce the impact of diseases.'

Wouldn't it be far easier to clear the forest, plant citrus, blast any diseases with pesticides and pump up the fruit with fertilisers? 'We've all seen what happens across the border in Guatemala,' says Peck. 'They cut everything, but we still have our trees, we have clean creeks, we have all the birds and animals with us for our grandchildren to see. The only way is to practise the system of our ancestors.'