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Trinidad: beyond sugar and bananas

With the collapse of preferential access to European markets for sugar and bananas, agriculture in Caricom faces a crisis. But the experience of a group of Mayan Indians in Belize may point to a way forward.

The Mayan Indians are one of the indigenous peoples of South America. Between AD 250 and AD 900 they created an advanced civilisation. They built great cities and trading centres around palaces plazas and pyramids. And they were the most sophisticated agriculturalists of the time. But today they are a marginalised rural community in countries like Belize and Guatemala.

In the early 1980s Britain's Department for International Development started a cocoa growing project among the Mayan Indians of Belize. The scheme was based on providing bank loans to encourage the farmers to buy hybrid seeds and chemical fertilisers. Communal land was broken up, in order to allow individual farmers to deposit deeds at the bank as collateral. But by the early 1990s the scheme was on the verge of collapse.

The British had handed it over to USAID, who in turn linked up with US confectionary multinational Hershey. They originally promised to buy the cocoa at US$1.75 a pound, but as soon as the USAID workers left, Hershey dropped its price to 55c a pound.

Desperate farmers had to leave home to get work as orange pickers or sugar cane cutters just to service their debts and support their families in their home villages. Production plummeted, farmers were abandoning their plantations and the jungle was taking over.

Enter a small British chocolate company called Green and Black's. They had developed a top selling brand of high priceed "organic" chocolate (ie chocolate grown naturally without any pesticides or chemicals of any kind). Up until now they had sourced their "organic" cocoa from Togo in West Africa. But a military coup in Togo had endangered their supply. So they were looking for somewhere new from where to source their cocoa.

They offered the Mayan farmers in Belize: three times the price Hershey had been paying them, a five-year rolling contract, organic certification, training, and $20,000 cash for each farmer up front. The British and UN aid workers in Belize advised the Mayans strongly against getting involved and in particular against going "organic". They said it would be a disaster. Fortunately, the Mayans ignored them and signed a deal.

In 1994, Green and Black's launched "Maya Gold" chocolate. It was the first product to have a Fairtrade Mark certification (Oxfam, Christian Aid and others had set up the Fairtrade Foundation to certify that products were produced by fair trade principles, ie no exploitation of the farmers).

Green and Black's had taken the precaution of getting a distribution deal for "Maya Gold" chocolate with Sainsbury's supermarket, one of Britain's biggest supermarket chains. But crucially, the Fairtrade Foundation mobilised legions of vicars and local activists to lobby shops to stock the new chocolate bar. It was a roaring success.

And Green and Black's is now a US$80-million brand. In fact, the main problem that they have now is sourcing enough "organic" cocoa to meet demand. But more important, the lives of the Mayan villagers in Belize who produce the "organic" cocoa have been transformed.

Green and Black's buys all the "organic" cocoa produced in the district. They pay the farmers a minimum price of US$1,600 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 the British-based Soil Association which certifies that the cocoa is genuinely "organic".

The company also funds 27 extension officers, local people trained in agriculture, IT and administration. According to Green and Black's, 92 cents of every dollar the farmers earn goes to their families. Seventy per cent of the children who live in the outlying villages now go to secondary school, compared to 10 per cent before.

Women, who are the experts at fermenting and drying cocoa beans, have been empowered. And villagers, who used to live in primitive huts, now live in wooden bungalows with concrete floors. They have gone from being marginalised people, dependent on their men going away to work, to a prosperous, stable rural community.

Producing "organic" cocoa for a British producer of luxury chocolate bars is never going to replace sugar and banana all over the Caribbean. For one thing, Green and Black's chocolate is a very specialised product. It is marketed to adult middle-class consumers who want to indulge themselves with a chocolate bar, whilst reassuring themselves that they are doing something to help the poor.

And, crucially, they are willing to pay double the normal price of a bar of chocolate. Green and Black's will always be a niche product.

It can never take over from Cadburys or Hershey. Furthermore, it is precisely because the Mayans are so isolated that they adapted so well to "organic" farming methods without chemicals or pesticides.

For them it was going back to a farming method that they knew best. But, if commercial agriculture in the Caribbean is to survive and move forward, it will probably mean moving into high-quality, high-priced specialist agricultural products, together with clever marketing.