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Mayan Gold: hidden treasures and chocolate

With demand for fair trade chocolate on the rise, producers of the world’s first organic, Fairtrade bar are feeling the limitations of bean supply, as well as the not-so-fair-for-the-farmer surcharges of the UK’s Fairtrade organization.

World’s first Fairtrade chocolate: In 1994, Green & Black’s Maya Gold became the world’s first Fairtrade chocolate bar, and product (bearing the UK’s trademark) without even trying to achieve the distinction.

Company founder Craig Sams and his wife, Josephine (a green journalist) were simply trying to do business fairly and they found the perfect place for it while on a holiday in Belize. As they explain on their website, “they discovered cocoa farmers were being penalized, as some larger confectionery companies tried to drive cocoa prices down.

They agreed to pay the farmers a fair price for their crops and created the flavor of Maya Gold to capture the taste of the rain forests where the cocoa is grown. This way of doing business didn’t seem different to them – it was what came naturally but it subsequently earned them the UK’s first Fairtrade mark.”

Hershey’s Not-So-Fair Deal

The story really begins back in the eighties in Belize when British and American aid groups developed a scheme to break up communal land and allow farmers to clear the forest and plant cacao trees.

The plan relied on the promise by chocolate superpower Hersheys to pay a guaranteed price of $1.75 per lb, but once aid workers left in 1992, they changed their tune. “As soon as the aid workers had gone Hershey’s buying agent progressively reduced the price paid from $1.80 to $1.25 to 90¢ to 70¢ and finally to 55¢ a pound.

This took place as the trees that had been planted were maturing, and farmers were confronted with the desperate need to make money to pay back the debts they had incurred at the local bank under the USAID-supported loan scheme. Many had to leave home to seek migrant work as orange pickers or sugar cane cutters on plantations in the north, just to earn enough money to service their debts and support their families in their home villages.”

When Craig Sams moved in with his truly fair deal, the Mayan community was given a second chance. Not only were farmers guaranteed $1.75 per pound (3 times the going price), but Green & Black’s (G&B) helped them obtain organic certification, gave them a cash advance of $20,000 and trained coop members in management, accounting, fermentation and quality control.

Besides the job creation, the social programs created (a required part of Fairtrade deals) are benefiting the next generation. Today, 70% of local children are in secondary school compared with the 10% before the G&B deal.

Shade Grown

The land has benefited as well. G&B has spared these southern Belize jungles from the fate of most cacao plantations. Heavy use of pesticides- cacao is the most heavily sprayed crop after cotton- and the conventional method of planting trees too close together has led to clear-cutting of forests and even accelerated the spread of some diseases in other cacao-growing countries.

Organic cacao is grown under shade trees, a second crop planted alongside the cacao trees which are themselves planted 15 feet apart. With conditions like these pesticides aren’t necessary, but the crop yields are also smaller, a problem for a rapidly growing market for organic chocolate.

Hidden Plantation

Currently, Green & Black’s buys a third of the world’s total organic crop and with sales growing by 72% each year, they can’t just plant more trees to fulfill rising demand. It takes 4 or 5 years for new saplings to produce beans and while the G&B’s cooperative farmers have begun to plant for the future, for today’s chocolate lovers, they needed to discover mature plantations.

Last year, in an overgrown jungle in Belize, a project manager for Green & Black’s discovered just such a treasure: an abandoned plantation dating over a century ago. Planted to shade grown norms (complete with companion shade trees of nutmeg), this antique forest will help bridge the gap in demand.

The Price of Fairtrade

Of G&B’s 15 bars on the market, only one, the Maya Gold, is Fairtrade-certified. They are all organic and they claim to pay fair wages, but the company has hesitated to go across-the-board Fairtrade. G&B product manager Gregor Hargrove explained to The Observer, ‘Fairtrade guarantees a better deal for third-world producers, and a hell of a deal for first-world bureaucrats.’

The Fairtrade organization charges the coop farmers for the cost of inspection visits as well as a percentage fee for all cacao shipped to Europe. Craig Sams told the Observer, ‘Right now, this hurts the TCGA (the coop) because it comes to about $ 3,500 on their annual sales of $ 70,000 or five per cent, a much higher fee than the two per cent we pay.’

Other European chocolate makers have found an alternative to the Fairtrade trademark. Companies such as the French Kaoka and the German Rapunzel are working within ‘organic and fair’ schemes and the Soil Association is currently developing a new certification system.

A Corporate Future?

In 1995 G&B was bought by chocolate giant Cadburys and many feared the small organic company with a soft spot for farmers around the world would lose its green vision. Sams denies that the company will radically change and explained to the Guardian that the move was necessary to meet increasing demand for organic chocolate.

“We’re bumping up against the available supply of cocoa beans, and we need their help to expand. We have a planting project in Belize to put cocoa beans under the rain forest canopy, which will provide £1m income for growers there.

We are managing our business on a shoestring. If we really want to make a difference to the level of operation and really support the farmers there, we need Cadbury’s.”