A Cocoa Comeback in Latin America

Cocoa from Latin America is making a comeback, at least according to a report in Confectionary News. It is often forgotten that Latin American cocoa dominated the world market until the early years of the twentieth century. After the Spanish colonizers brought cocoa to Spain and from there is quickly spread to the rest of Europe. But once industrialization made the production of chocolate bars possible and affordable, demand for cocoa expanded to levels that Latin American was not able to supply.

The spread of cocoa production followed a pattern first discussed by Francois Ruf, a French agronomist, who hypothesized that cocoa production depends on access to virgin forest land. He coined the phrase “forest rent” to explain that a new cocoa grove on new forest land is initially extremely productive and produces very high yields. As the trees near their life expectancy or are attacked by disease or pests, the yields decline, sometimes precipitously. Replanting in an existing cocoa grove never yields as good a return as planting in new forest lands. So productivity depends on capitalizing on the “forest rent” derived from previously untouched forests. Increase demand, therefore, over time leads to an expansion of cocoa production to areas that support the tree. As long as there was enough forest land available, there was no problem, but eventually, that expansion came to an end. The move to Africa in the mid 1800s is in part explained by the need for more forest land.

The reason behind the current Latin American cocoa renaissance is the growing demand for organic and single origin cocoa beans. Apparently, Europeans and Americans have become cocoa conaisseurs and can tell an Ecuadorian Arriba bean from a Venezualen Chuao bean. The perennial winner of chocolate contests, Amedei, buys all the beans produced on the Chuao peninsula of Venezuela. Others try to get equally exclusive deals with other important growing areas. Yet others are combing the various country sides to find old groves that had been abandoned in earlier times in the hopes of scoring big with an even more exclusive chocolate bar. At the New York chocolate show in 2006, I even saw a bar made from “wild” cocoa beans. I wonder how many of those there are.

The biggest factor, though, is the demand for organic cocoa beans and here the greater Caribbean has a great advantage. Since most of the cocoa here is grown by relatively small estates who have long been too poor to afford pesticides and fertilizer, getting an organic certification is relatively simple. That was one of the factors that has made the Dominican Republic is the largest producer of organic cocoa beans.

But the organic output is still only a miniscule fraction of the total world production (0.5% according to the ICCO). So the increased prices commanded by some Caribbean cocoa (up to $9,000/ton for Chuao cocoa beans, for example) benefit only a very small segment of cocoa growers.

For African countries who produce the bulk of the world’s cocoa, the fear of loosing a significant part of their crop due to pests or diseases is the main obstacles to growing organic cocoa. If thirty percent of your export earnings depend on cocoa, going organic seems like a big gamble. In  Ghana, the COCOBOD hires sprayer gangs who spray all cocoa groves. In my conversations with the folks at the Kuapa Kokoo, I learned just how difficult it is to grow organic cocoa in Ghana. First you have to convince the cocoa board. Then you have to take your own risk. If your entire livelihood depends on each year’s production, the transition to organic is very difficult. Certification requires a three year hiatus in the use of chemicals before the certification is granted. During those three years, the farmer does not benefit from the organic premium but runs the increased risk of loosing a good part of the crop.

Right now, Latin American, especially the Caribbean, benefits from a century of neglect that has allowed the groves and forests to recover. I wonder, though, if this boom in exotic beans is sustainable in the long run.

 

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