(Family Features) - If you were to ask 3-year-old Griselda what it is she loves to eat, she might flash you a shy smile and point to one of the chocolate truffles of her native country, Belize. Beyond her own burgeoning sweet tooth, however, it might be safe to say that Griselda has little understanding of just how important a piece of chocolate is to the Mayan community she was born into.
But for her father Justino Peck and the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association (the farming cooperative in southern Belize for which he serves as chairman), chocolate is more than just a recreational treat - it's their livelihood.
Today, this livelihood is protected. Organically grown produce that protects the environment through sustainable agriculture practices is a critical part of helping farmers in developing countries to lift themselves out of poverty. Establishing equitable standards, dealing directly with farmers, paying them a guaranteed minimum price in cash for their crops and equipping them with the resources and training needed to compete in the global marketplace are all essential components of a healthy economic exchange.
An Inspirational Retreat
In 1994, organic chocolate manufacturer Green & Black's added Maya Gold to its line of chocolates after founders Craig Sams and Jo Fairley fell in love with a Mayan drink while on vacation in Belize. "Kukuh," the Mayan drink, had been consumed by native cocoa farmers for generations. The company had already begun with the belief that sourcing organic ingredients for its products would be beneficial to taste. The company also believed that farmers who grew their crops organically were more interested in the quality and taste of what they grew, and were therefore more personally invested in their crops.
A Disturbing Discovery
The most important aspect of their new product was the agreement Sams and Fairley entered into with the local farmers while on their trip. After learning that a large chocolate corporation had promised the farmers lucrative prices to plant hybrid cocoa trees rather than indigenous varieties familiar to them - eventually causing the community to collapse in economic ruin - Green & Black's offered to trade directly with the farmers. The company agreed a price with the growers that made it profitable for them to grow cocoa and, signed a rolling contract for 5 years minimum with a cash prepayment to ensure that their cooperative could reimburse members 'on the spot.' This equitable deal meant that Maya Gold earned the first Fairtrade Mark ever to be awarded in the United Kingdom.
Every batch of Maya Gold chocolate has been made with organically grown cocoa sourced directly from the farmers under this agreement. In addition, Green & Black's has helped build the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association from 170 farmers to 1000 farmers by providing basic business training. The farmers also regularly received samples of "their" chocolate, so their pride in its quality is reflected in the quality of their cocoa beans.
Lasting Impressions of Growing Organic Cocoa
Since then, Mayan growers have been affected in many ways. Growing organically allows the farmers to avoid the use of pesticides and fertilizers that ruin surrounding environments. Because of their sustainable farming practices, Peck explains, "We still have our trees, we have clean creeks, we have all the birds and animals with us for our grandchildren to see."
Environmental benefits of organically grown cocoa include increased migratory bird habitat, protection of the scarlet macaw's breeding grounds - the mangrove plants and reef where tarpon and bonefish breed, benefiting sport and food fishermen. Less herbicide pollution also means cleaner rivers and fewer skin diseases.
"Because of cocoa, people are able to buy clothing, medical supplies, school books and uniforms," Peck says. "A lot of children didn't go to school before, but now they can." It's a fact that Peck is undoubtedly grateful for, especially today as he watches his youngest, Griselda, playing in a sunny spot outside their thatched house.
Great Tasting Chocolate
Where cocoa is grown and how it is processed affects its taste. Green & Black's uses the finest Trinitario and Criollo cocoa beans, grown organically in places like Belize, which give the chocolate its unmistakable intensity. Careful oversight of the production process from bean to bar ensures the best quality.
- Cocoa pods are harvested at their peak of ripeness.
- Farmers then remove the beans from the pods and cover them with banana leaves for about five days. During this time the beans ferment and develop their pronounced chocolate flavor.
- After the beans are fermented, they are laid out to dry in the sun, continuing the flavor development process.
- The beans are then shipped to the factory where they will become chocolate.
- At the factory, the beans are checked again for quality before entering the production line. They are then roasted to develop their rich flavor.
- The beans are then ground to a smooth paste, and real Bourbon vanilla and organic sugar are added to the mixture.
- This paste, or cocoa mass, is then "conched" or stirred for 18 hours to develop its intense flavor.
- Before pouring the chocolate mixture into molds to set, it has to be tempered. Well tempered chocolate will have a lovely shine and a good "snap" - the sound a quality chocolate bar makes when you break it.
Maya Gold and the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association
The Maya Gold Project officially started in 2003 with the aim of turning the Toledo Cocoa Growers Association into a viable, self-sustaining organization. This group operates in the poorest part of Belize and the program aims to help people in the local community improve their quality of life.
To achieve this, the organization must sell at least 200 tons of fair trade cocoa per year. Green & Black's has committed to buying at least that amount for their Maya Gold and other organic chocolate bars. Thanks to their commitment, there is now a palpable feeling of excitement and enthusiasm over the project and cocoa as a crop.
Better Quality of Life
Green & Black's efforts in the Toledo District in Belize have been critical in supporting growth and helping this area recover from economic devastation. The company has helped provide:
- A projected increased input into the local economy from $40,000 to over $400,000.
- Growth in TCGA membership over the last year from 170 to 1000 farmers.
- Return of disillusioned farmers to farms that they're now renovating.
- Money to fund community development projects that are decided upon within the group.
- Rapidly increasing yields via nearly 1 million trees planted since 2004 (more than 2,000 acres).
- Continued technical advice and support from Green & Black's.
For more information about Green & Black's organic chocolate and its fair trade practices, visit www.greenandblacks.com/us.