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Cacao in Belize: When Price Does Not Equal Value

Our Cocoa Sourcing Manager, Jesse Last, is sharing his reflections from origin this #sourcingseason. Each spring, he criss-crosses Latin America and the Caribbean, growing our relationship with the people who grow our Direct Trade cacao beans.

Each March, hundreds of Belizean cacao growers and their families gather for an annual farmers meeting. They come from San Antonio, Santa Cruz, Blue Creek and other indigenous Maya villages throughout the country’s Toledo District. Stepping down from beat up buses, the attendees gather beneath a giant white tent set up by the local company Maya Mountain Cacao.

Farmers and Families at Maya Mountain Cacao Farmer Meeting 2016
"Farmers and Families at Maya Mountain Cacao Farmer Meeting 2016."

This is an important day for the region’s farmers. Since its launch in 2011, Maya Mountain Cacao (or “MMC”) has become Belize’s largest cacao buyer, processor and exporter. With the mission of improving farmers’ livelihoods, MMC has steadily expanded its farmer network by delivering high-value services including agronomic training, organic certification, and subsidized cacao seedlings, by paying the highest prices possible without bankrupting itself, and by developing relationships built on trust and transparency.

As a result, the company and its management – from the US-born Emily Stone to MMC co-founder and local leader Gabriel Pop – have become trusted members of the community. The farmers have reliably sold the company their cacao beans, and in exchange, MMC has paid the best possible price based on its ability to grow demand among the world’s finest chocolate makers – including Taza.

But this year, the tight bond built between farmers and MMC is under pressure. Despite increasing prices to just under $4,000 per metric ton of cacao – a nearly unheard of price in a world market where most cacao farmers will be lucky to receive about half that amount – farmers are being tempted to sell to new buyers. These competing buyers are not ill intentioned, and arguably, could serve farmers’ interests by driving up prices even further. But neither MMC nor I see it that way, and today, in front of hundreds of farmers, we must explain why.

The meeting begins with a group prayer followed by brief welcomes from local dignitaries. But the main event, the words everyone has come to hear, are those of the company’s CEO, Emily Stone. First in Q'eqchi' Maya and then in English, Emily welcomes the farmers and their families and expresses gratitude for their attendance. And then, she goes to the heart of the issue.

Emily acknowledges the new competition, and she states her respect for each and every farmer as a free actor able to sell cacao beans to anyone he or she chooses. And, when the farmers make that decision, she encourages them to think beyond the day’s price in order to consider the bigger picture. While several of the new buyers are paying higher prices at the moment, they can afford do so because, unlike MMC, they are not investing in physical infrastructure, capacity building, and the myriad services that are critical to sustaining the country’s cacao sector in the long-term.

For instance, these intermediaries do not pay for agricultural trainings to improve production or extend microloans to support farm families. They do not know how to properly ferment and dry the cacao beans they buy in order to ensure the exceptional quality that chocolate-makers around the world have come to expect from Belize. And because of these deficiencies, they lack the staying power needed to guarantee high prices not only today, but for years to come.

As Emily speaks, I notice the farmers listening raptly, their eyes alert. There is a major decision in front of them. Since its launch, Maya Mountain Cacao has always played fair, raising prices as high as possible based on its own costs of operation, costs that include innovative services that farmers value. Given this history, will Belize’s cacao farmers maximize their short-term gains, or will they continue to trust in Emily, Gabriel, and Maya Mountain Cacao’s vision of long-term prosperity? As we enter the peak of the harvest season and producers choose to whom they sell, we will soon find out.

Maya Mountain Cacao's Minni Forman awards a farmer a prize for good growing practices
"Maya Mountain Cacao's Minni Forman awards a farmer a prize for good growing practices."

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