Cocoa farmers work on a plan to revive the industry, as low cash flow, high costs and lack of interest
put T&T’s famed cocoa in peril
By Lorraine Waldropt
Moheepath got stung by a scorpion last Sunday. He was sambling cocoa (colloquial term for gathering cocoa pods in a heap) on the estate where he works. He didn’t bother to go to the health centre which was miles away, and besides, he says, the doctor is never on-site. Instead, he killed the scorpion, burned it and soaked its remains in rum. “This potion does heal you when you get a scorpion sting and it does build your resistance for the next time you get sting,” he explained. Of course there would be a next time; scorpions are common pests in the cocoa heap.
The estate he works on is 30 years old, the “bossman”, as he calls the owner of the estate, may soon sell off the land as real estate because of low cash flow, high labour and input costs and low reliability of labour.
“All I know is cocoa and I know it very well,” says Moheepath. “Nobody cyah chouponeer (prune) a tree like me. Cocoa was king when I was small, but not again. The Government ent doing nothing to resurrect the king. People selling estates like mad and nobody ent trying to save we bread and butter,” he concluded sadly.
Moheepath’s lament is not unfamiliar to other farmers in the local cocoa industry. His complaint is fact: Trinidad and Tobago’s fine or flavour cocoa was, indeed, king in the early 1900s, with a production of over 30 million kg in 1921 and the status as fifth largest producer of fine or flavour cocoa in the world. In 1992, production plunged to 935, 000 kg, and today a modest 1.25 million kg are produced.
In addressing the downward spiral of domestic cocoa quotas, 1999 Government of Trinidad and Tobago and European Union Rehabilitation of the Cocoa Industry Investment Preparation Study suggested disease problems (blackpod) and pests, lack of education in agriculture and dwindling farming population, exodus of labour away from farms, with industrialization and low-input cultivation methods as the precipitating agents.
If credit be given to the respective authorities, not all of these factors mitigate against the industry today. The University of the West Indies Cocoa Research Unit (UWI CRU), and the Ministry of Agriculture Cocoa Research Unit have addressed the disease problems through research and development of disease-resistant and high-yielding varieties. In fact, the International Genebank for Cocoa, at Centeno in east Trinidad, expertly managed by UWICRU, has won the institution and the country much acclaim in the world cocoa fraternity. Pests are also managed more effectively in the fields, and education is not as low as in past years.
Furthermore, the most significant positive characteristics of the local cocoa industry still prevail: a niche market with a premium price, courtesy the intrinsic flavour of Trinidad and Tobago’s cocoa among the other eight exclusive producers in the world, and the fact that it is a prime ingredient in bourgeoisie dark chocolates. This is the dark chocolate sometimes referred to as “vintage chocolate” (as it compares to fine wine because of its price and exclusivity) demanded by the elite market. (Dark chocolate is made from fine or flavour cocoa which is only produced in eight countries of the world. Some countries produce 100 pre cent fine or flavour cocoa while others produce it partially. In Trinidad and Tobago it is 100 per cent. Not all fine or flavour cocoa has the same flavour as this is unique to the country of origin. The characteristic flavour is derived from a combination of environmental, genetic and climatic factors. Milk chocolate is produced from another category of cocoa called “bulk cocoa”, which is produced in the other cocoa producing countries throughout the world, mainly African countries. Fine or flavour cocoa commands a premium price over bulk cocoa. Trinidad and Tobago Fine or Flavour cocoa is, therefore, a brand in itself.)
Nevertheless, the perennial problem of labour has not been solved, and the ageing population of farmers and low interest by younger people continue to be areas of concern. New problems as the economy proceeds through a recession, health and safety and other negating issues have also cropped up to stunt the growth of the sector.
In the first week of March this year, Trinidad and Tobago was the host for the International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) Second Round Table Meeting (RSCE2)—a follow-up to the first in Ghana in 2007, which I attended as Assistant Manager of Prism Agri Estates. The local leg of this forum for world stakeholders in the industry to brainstorm on ways to develop, maintain and sustain the world cocoa economy boosted the morale of the domestic cocoa community and discussed several key issues affecting the global industry. However, according to Joseph, a cocoa farmer from East Trinidad, no significant feat was accomplished through the RSCE2. He got an opportunity to give his views at a recent meeting for cocoa farmers at the Hyatt: “The Minister of Agriculture came in all his glory, rubbing shoulders with the foreigners. He behaved like if he knew our plight as farmers. But I want to let everybody know that that was just a show. Up to now he has not addressed the real issues of the cocoa-farming population.” Joseph says the farmers want a higher price for their cocoa: “Up to now the price is a measly $18 per kilogram. A kind gentleman at the meeting told us he could give us better prices if we shipped to him but the market to buy and sell is not open to small farmers; the old dusty Act from yesterday binds us to export licenses and quotas.”
He says the Minister did not address issues like the closing of National Agro, the local Government-subsidized supplier of fertilizer to farmers, and the fact that farmers have no local cheap source of fertilizer. “So what real issues did Mr Minister really solve and attempt to address at the RSCE 2 meeting?” Joseph asked, to applause of the other farmers. “After that big meeting I saw all kinds of nice things on the newspapers about cocoa. But at the end of the day I’m still struggling to feed my family on cocoa money.” He said to the meeting: “I send my children to school and after they graduate they leave the estate. Why? During the three years that cocoa trees take to grow and bear, the little money I had coming in was from the banana and plantain inter-cropped between the cocoa. The Government gives subsidies for new fields and rehab of old ones but that money is definitely too small and the wait real long.”
Sammy, an 80-year-old farmer from Moruga, said he had the solution to the labour problem: “Bring back the old people to work so they could teach the young!” But, he added, “Government must still pay us pension, because if we work on estates we can lose this privilege.”
The plight of the small farmer is shared by the large farmer, regardless of the varying economies of scale. Another farmer and member of the Private Shippers’ Association of T&T said, “Very soon there will be no cocoa industry, no farmers and no estates. If this situation is not dealt with, the local economy will loose a gem of a commodity. We, the farmers, understand this, the Government doesn’t have a clue, they don’t seem to be affected.”
At another, more formal, meeting, farmers came up with a plan of action to resuscitate the industry. This meeting was the third for the newly formed group, Cocoa Producers Alliance of Trinidad and Tobago (COPALTT), a by-product of the RSCE2 meeting. COPALTT is a collective voice for all local farmers who feel that “enough is enough”. Alexandra Seale, chairperson of the group, says farmers have to become proactive in order to save their estates: “We have to take matters into our own hands.” The group, she says, serves as the lobbying group, representing farmers of all regions and backgrounds in Trinidad and Tobago. She says the farmers made a declaration in which they articulated priorities for the industry. It addresses the issues of agricultural health and safety, education, estate insurance, industry-friendly legislation, marketing and agro-tourism. The group’s core intends to meet with the Ministry of Agriculture and the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board (CCIB) very soon, and to continue regular general meetings for farmers.
So will cocoa ever win the battle of decline, and reclaim its royalty? Fitz-Clarence Waldropt, a cocoa farmer and member of the CCIB, believes that the new farmers’ groups and their more vocal approach will indeed revolutionize the industry and turn it in a positive direction. He says he grew up in the field with his father who was the manager of Government-owned cocoa estate, MARPER Farms, so he can agree that cocoa was a big part of the economy. “The reason it fell,” he says, “was because agriculture lost its appeal. No one wants to work in the bush anymore; it’s not glamorous. They prefer a ‘10-days’. I had many other opportunities growing up but I decided to honour my dad’s efforts and return to the field.” Waldropt says he has hope that the country will reach dominance once more in cocoa, “once everyone in the industry does their homework.”
Dr Darin Sukha, research fellow at UWICRU, is also confident that the best is still ahead and the marriage between research, the farming community, Government and other stakeholders is critical to the cocoa dilemma. Meanwhile, Lawrence Duprey, owner of a conglomerate of cocoa estates, Prism Agri Estates Co. Ltd., expressed his amazement that cocoa was not a major national priority like energy. “We in Trinidad and Tobago have a commodity in cocoa that has a phenomenal competitive advantage due to its product differentiation. Nowhere else in the world could you produce Trinidad and Tobago cocoa. You can’t take our seedlings and plant them in another country and derive our indigenous flavour. My question is: why aren’t we developing a commodity of this nature? This should be foremost in our economic strategy!”
The CCIB, in tandem with the Ministry of Agriculture, are the agents who supposedly hold the financial key to the doorway of change, their intervention is crucial for the survival of the industry. Jacqueline Rawlins, chairman of the CCIB, assured that strategic plans addressing all the farmers’ concerns aired in this article have been submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture, and that some initiatives have already begun. But while the Minister of Agriculture was unavailable for interview for this article, the plight of Moheepath, Joseph, Sammy and the rest of the cocoa die-hards still resonates in the rural distance. And, day by day, estates continue to be sold to real estate tycoons. Will the sweet crown of cocoa ever be salvaged? “Yes it will,” insists COPALTT activist Alexandra Seale, who is adamant that things will change, once she has something to do with it.