First shipment of organic cocoa leaves soon for Europe

by Wendella Davidson
Guyana Chronicle
May 21, 2001

GUYANA is poised for a significant breakthrough in the export of organically grown cocoa to Europe. The first consignment of one ton of beans leaves these shores for Rotterdam, Holland shortly.

The significant achievement, over which members of the Mabaruma/Hosororo Organic Farmers Association is particularly enthused, comes in the wake of a cocoa cultivation lull of almost a decade.

As a result, farmers had virtually neglected their farms which then reverted to secondary forest vegetation.

The interest in growing organic cocoa developed after a 1999 visit and proposal by Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.

Since then, the British High Commission became integrally involved, and the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA) was tasked with overseeing the project with assistance from the National Agricultural & Research Institute (NARI) and the Ministry of Fisheries, Crops and Livestock.

An initial one-off payment of 50,000 pounds sterling was made available by the Department for International Development (DFID) on behalf of the British Government to facilitate start-up of the project. This process entailed the purchase of equipment, clearing of the plots and pruning of the cocoa trees.

In Rotterdam, the beans will be "closely" tested for quality before being processed into a paste and shipped to London, where it will be processed into chocolate under the brand "Dutchie's Original". The chocolate will be sold in supermarkets there.

British High Commissioner Mr. Edward Glover, in an exclusive interview with the Chronicle, said the demand for organic produce is unparalleled, not only in the United Kingdom but also in Germany and France.

The eating habits of people are changing and they want to spend more money on organic products, he noted.

Of the organic cocoa project itself, the British envoy said it is "alive and well."

"We are on the brink of sending the first shipment of dried beans to Europe. It would be a tremendous achievement for the project, but in particular, for the farmers and all others who have been working very hard on the implementation ever since last year," Mr. Glover said.

He added that once the beans arrive in Europe, "there is going to be a very clear signal that the project is a good one, well-based and organised, and a good encouragement to move on".

The High Commissioner, who expressed the wish of having a consignment of chocolate bars made from the first shipment come to Guyana to be shared with the farmers, said he has already dispatched a message to the Office of the Prince of Wales recording the progress made to date,

BRITISH High Commissioner Mr. Edward Glover (right) makes a point about the cocoa pod to IICA Representative, Dr Alexis Gardella (centre). Research scientist Dr Patrick Chesney, (at left) displays a packet of cocoa beans. (Picture by Corwin Williams) IICA representative Dr Alexis Gardella, who along with Dr Patrick Chesney, Research Scientist responsible for tree crops at NARI was present at the interview, recalled that the project was started under her predecessor, Mr. Jerry La Gra.

According to Dr Gardella, this shipment of organic cocoa is very important because it is the first time that the farmers are harvesting cocoa that was grown using organic methods.

"We are very excited. We don't have a price yet, but all of that would happen once the cocoa beans get to Europe. So it is very important. It is the first milestone, the first of many as we expand production and maintain a high quality. These beans are special, they are of a very good quality."

Dr Gardella recalled that Guyana produced and exported huge quantities of cocoa in the 1950s and 1960s before the market apparently collapsed and the cocoa trees were left uncared for.

It was presumably on this prior information that an earlier projection of 25 tons of cocoa to be harvested was based.

This, however proved to be unrealistic. It was later discovered that all of the existing cocoa trees were not actually producing.

The IICA official pointed out, too, that many of the trees would not actually be brought back into production immediately, as they need a period to be pruned and fertilised by organic methods.

It is hoped, though, that the 25-ton production could be realised in another year or two.

Dr Gardella noted that in the initial period when all the methods are new to the farmers, and IICA and the Association are still seeking to conquer logistic problems, the harvesting of the one ton of beans is a great achievement.

The problems stem from the fact that the present consignment of cocoa was harvested from within the Mabaruma/Hosororo area.

She said that Dr Chesney is currently conducting some assessment in surrounding areas where there is a lot more cocoa.

Others sites were located further upstream and much deeper into the forest, some 80 miles away. However, the logistics pose a severe problem.

To transport the cocoa from the fields and into Kumaka where the ferry docks is a major undertaking. Besides, the agencies had to get technicians out to those areas to teach the farmers how to cultivate and dry the cocoa before transporting it to Kumaka.

Nevertheless, Dr Gardella said, she is confident that the farmers will prevail over all odds, and that in time, the production and transportation processes will be better organised.

All the farmers are extremely enthusiastic, especially since they realise that they have a ready market for cocoa which has been growing in the area for a long time.

That enthusiasm rose by "leaps and bounds" when they learnt that if it was organic cocoa there would be a premium price on the beans.

"Organic farming is not just the lack of pesticides; it also involves the systematic method of covering the trees and using pure organic methods... it is just as intensive as any kind of agriculture based on chemicals, so it not just allowing the trees to grow wild without any care. It is very intensive," the IICA representative explained.

The process is a long one and it involves training and teaching persons to perceive what needs to be done in the aspect of fertilisers, she added.

Commenting on plans for the expansion of the project, Dr Chesney said that embarking on the rehabilitation of the cocoa farms has been a challenge.

But although it was a major undertaking, farmers were nevertheless very enthusiastic. They saw it as an extremely important economic activity in which to get involved.

The fact that they (the farmers) had been maintaining the cocoa trees on their farms in their own simple way suggests that they were always optimistic that some day another opportunity to manage and export cocoa would come along, Dr Chesney said.

He pointed out that management of organically grown cocoa produce is important to the farmers because it is a low-input base, and no chemical substance, be it fertiliser or pesticide, is used to cultivate the cocoa trees and to manage pests and diseases.

The inputs used are basically farm-grown, whether they are bio-mass obtained from trees and very high in nutrients or varieties of organic manure existing in the Mabaruma/Hosororo area.

They are all low-input systems and the farmers are pretty keen to use them, obviously because they do not cost much.

There are currently about 73 acres of old cocoa trees, more than 30 years old, Dr Chesney said.

He, too, feels that this is apparently why the initial projection was not possible. Dr Chesney pointed out that the productive life of a cocoa tree is only 20 years, and with trees planted 30 years ago, it is understandable why the production was low.

Dr Chesney explained that areas exist where there is potential for expansion. The trees can be made more productive through the process of pruning and other forms of management. He added that the replanting of cocoa trees in 73 areas has already begun.

With an additional 90 acres of land being put under cocoa cultivation in Region One (Barima/Waini), the next crop of cocoa beans should be bigger, Dr Chesney predicted.