The Toledo Cocoa Growers Association

I’m finally back from a wonderful visit to the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association (TCGA) in Punta Gorda, Belize. The name may not say much to most chocolate lovers, but it this cooperative that provides the beans for Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate bar. It was one of the earliest cooperatives certified for fairtrade cocoa.

The TCGA has developed into a viable organization, despite its troubles beginnings in the mid-1980s. It was founded in response to the Hershey-Hummingbird project, an attempt to restart cocoa production in Belize. When cocoa prices collapsed in the early 1990s, Hershey abandonned the project and left the farmers holding the bag.

Enter Craig Sams, the founder of Green & Black. With the aid of the Fairtrade Foundation of the UK and the UK Department of International Development, Green & Black established one of the first fairtrade relationships in the cocoa sector. In 1993, the company agreed to purchase up to 500,000 pounds of beans at fairtrade prices from the TCGA.

TCGA Office in Punta Gorda
TCGA Office in Punta Gorda

Since then, TCGA has grown and the majority of the growth has taken place since 2003. In the three years between 2003-06, some 800 farmers joined the cooperative, bringing the total membership up to about 1,070 farmers, up from 271 at the beginning of the decade.

The majority of the farmers are not yet producing beans. Having cleared the farms only recently, they are still waiting for the trees to produce beans. Today some 370 farmers are active producers but output has increased nevertheless.

In 2006, TCGA delivered 94,000 pounds of beans. In 2008, the cooperative reached 103,000 pounds. Those amounts are miniscule in relation to the tons of fairtrade beans being produced elsewhere. But it’s important to remember that all beans produced by the TCGA are certified organic in addition to being fairtrade certified.

Cocoa Beans at TCGA
Cocoa Beans at TCGA

Armando Choco (what an appropriate surname), the manager of the TCGA hopes to increase production to 250,000 lbs over the next four years. At that level, the association will be sustainable and self-supporting. It will be able to pay for its overhead and the extension services it offers to its members. With so many new farmers coming online, there is little doubt that the TCGA can achieve that goal.

Green & Black is the sole purchaser of the TCGA beans. Until 2008, the company had committed to buying up to 500,000 lbs of beans per year. Since then the committment has been increased to 1 million lbs. In other words, there is plenty of room to grow for the TCGA.

In the coming days, I’ll add additional bits of information about my visit.

Punta Gorda, Belize
Punta Gorda, Belize

(Sorry about the poor image quality. My camera battery ran out and I had to rely on my mobile phone camera.)

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4 Replies to “The Toledo Cocoa Growers Association”

  1. 100,000 lbs does indeed seem like a small amount, especially given the size of Green & Black. Do you think this amount is enough to actually produce all the Maya Gold bars & cocoa that Green & Black sells?

    And how did what you learn compare to the description of the co-op that appears in Carole Off’s book “Bitter Chocolate”?

  2. Yes, I know. 100,000 pounds is not a lot. Even their goal of 250,000 lbs in four years seems modest, but the folks have a good sense of what they can expect. I know that G&B source cocoa from the Dominican Republic (Conacado) and I believe they get some of the FT beans from there as well. I know they did after the hurricane in 2004. So, if they need more, they may get it from there. But G&B has committed to buying up to 1 million lbs from the TCGA, so they have a lot of room to grow.

    As to the Off book, I think the TCGA has grown a lot since her research assistant visited Punta Gorda. For one, the TCGA is now run by locals rather than expats. Armando Choco (the manager) and Alvaro Pop (Compliance Officer), the two people I spoke with, radiated confidence and competence. I saw some of the organic inspection reports that their extension agents filled out and they were complete and comprehensive.

    That does not mean that all farmers there are literate, but the one farmer I spoke with, Justiniano Pop, seemed to me to be the future of cocoa farming, not just there but elsewhere. He was in his mid-to-late twenties, literate, had 500 trees and served as an extension agent. His farm is also part of the Cacao Festival Cacao Trail. Whereas I found young people in Ghana leaving the cocoa sector, in Belize they are joining. I think that fairtrade makes that difference.

  3. I’m glad to hear about the increasing strength of the co-op, though selling all of your crop to one buyer is, of course, to put all your eggs in one basket. On the coffee side of our business at Equal Exchange we encourage our farmer co-op partners to have a diversified set of clients, and not to rely too heavily on us. Its just not a sound business strategy. Besides the TCGA/Hersheys example, we’ve seen plenty of other examples like that in other commodities.

    I had, at least, two reasons for asking about the volume.
    1 – if in fact G&B needs to buy FT beans from CONACADO, or others, for the Maya Gold bar there could be an issue of truth-in-advertising.

    2 – if, as you & both suspect, G&B is buying some FT cocoa from CONACADO (a good thing) it raises the question why they buy some of CONACADO’s cocoa on FT terms on some not?

  4. I don’t really know if G&B is currently buying beans from CONACADO for Maya Gold. All I know is that after the 2004 hurricane they did and got permission to do so either from the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK, or FLO in Bonn.

    I do know they buy from CONACADO for their other chocolate bars and your point is well taken. Why not buy on fairtrade terms rather than on regular terms?

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