Venezuela Chocolate Revolution

Deep inside Venezuela's tropical forest a quiet revolution is taking place.

In the shade of the trees, pink cocoa pods ripen ready for the next harvest in early November. The pods carry the white, sticky pulp which is used to make cocoa beans and later chocolate.

The type of agriculture being used just outside the village of Ocumare de la Costa, is having a big impact on the farming community and its families. Ocumare is just one of several communities in Venezuela to have switched from conventional to organic farming and they are now reaping the rewards.

Organic farmers

Jose Lugo spends five hours a day nurturing his three hectares of cacao trees to protect them against pests, insects and bad weather. "We don't use any artificial fertilisers, just natural compost," he says. "It's twice as much work as before but it's definitely worth it." However, the financial rewards help compensate for the extra work because organic cocoa beans fetch up to four times as much as ordinary beans.

Mr Lugo and his friends now earn about $7 (£3.75) for a kilogramme of beans, whereas they used to get paid just less than $2 for conventional produce. They no longer sell their cocoa to local intermediaries, which have been priced out of the market, but straight to foreign chocolate manufacturers, which are willing to pay high prices for organic produce. The farmers have joined forces to form an association of organic farmers consisting of 50 families.

Organic converts

Behind the thick white walls of the association building, the cocoa seeds are fermented for six days in large wooden boxes. Trina Arevalo says the seeds are then dried in the sun and points to several clusters of brown beans lying on the patio. "We keep the cocoa beans here on the yard for six days," she says.

"Then they are cleaned, sorted and weighed. Finally, they're put into large sacks ready to be exported." It seems like a lot of hard manual labour, particularly during the rainy season when floods can wipe out the crops. Only a week ago, the river burst its banks and destroyed several hectares of fledgling cocoa plants.

Yet, in the last three years their annual cocoa production has doubled from close to 20 tonnes to more than 40 tonnes, Mrs Arevalo. "At first we didn't want to know anything about organic agriculture. It seemed too much fuss. But you see that we've been converted."

Much of the funding to kickstart this new wave of organic farming came from the Venezuelan government, which has injected some $10m on research and training, as well as from the European Union via a local non-governmental organisation called Tierra Viva.

The world's chocolate gourmets are looking to Venezuelan beans. Word has reached European and North American chocolate makers that this Latin American country is the hottest place on the organic chocolate map.

Several Italian, French and American chocolate manufacturers are buying organic beans from Venezuela. Like with exclusive claret wines or single malt whiskies, what the experts value the most is the "single bean origin" label to denote aroma and purity, and Venezuela can offer just that.

Andrea Trinci, who owns a chocolate factory and shop in Tuscany, recently visited Venezuela. "Venezuelan cocoa is very fine, elegant and persistent in its aroma," he says. "I would like to see more and more organic cocoa being exported, but only at a just price."

Local Production

The local cocoa producers are now making forays into the production of their own chocolate bars. Five kilometres down the road from Ocumare lies the seaside village of Cata, where a handful of cooperatives have started making their own organic chocolate. The sweet smell of melting chocolate greets visitors as they enter one of the cooperative shops.

Saturmina Diaz is one of six local women involved with the project, part-funded by the government and local charities. "We offer a wide range of products such as chocolate punch, wine and pudding," says Mrs Diaz. "Lots of foreign tourists come here to ask us whether we're exporting our merchandise, but so far we haven't had the financial means to do this. But that's the next logical step for us."

Facing the world

The cocoa producing zones of Venezuela, dotted along the Caribbean Coast and Lake Maracaibo, have gone through something of a revival. Only a few years ago plantations and farms lay abandoned, following a series of poor harvests and droughts. However, the roots of cocoa industry's decline can be traced back a long way. William Harcourt-Cooze is a British cocoa farmer who bought land in Venezuela back in the 1990s. "Prior to the discovery of petroleum here and the subsequent oil boom in the thirties and forties, cocoa was Venezuela's number one export," he says. "But the government of President Chavez is aware that cocoa could once again be one of the country's main exports."

Driving around some of these old cocoa communities, with their colonial-style churches and village squares, there seems to be a new sense of pride and purpose in people's faces. As one elderly farmer puts it, with a smile on his face: "The world is talking about us again. I've waited a whole lifetime for that to happen. Sometimes I felt like throwing in the towel, but now I'm glad I didn't."

By Greg Morsbach

BBC News, Ocumare

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