Visiting the producers we work with is of great importance to us at Camino. It allows us to consolidate our ties and establish fruitful exchanges; we share challenges, opportunities, projects on the go, and get a better sense of the realities on the ground. Since our last visit to Peru in the summer of 2018, like so many others, the pandemic left us counting the days until our next chance to meet in person. During this waiting period, confined to our respective countries, we and our partner growers took the opportunity to improve our technological communication tools – keeping in touch via teleconferencing platforms until we could see each other again.
As the restrictions lifted, we set about organizing a new field visit which took place in late March this year, in the Dominican Republic. In partnership with two local producer co-operatives, FUNDOPO and CONACADO, as well as our Swiss chocolate bar partner and our sister co-operative, we formed a new delegation with the aim of strengthening our relationships with cocoa-producing families, their co-operatives, and local communities.
Homemade hot chocolate
The day starts early for the cocoa farmers. They harvest during the first part of the day before the temperatures get too high. Sención, a smiling 86-year-old woman in whose home I stayed, gets up around 5 a.m. with her son Patricio, nicknamed Pépé, to start preparing breakfast while he watches the national news on television. Fried eggs, plantains, and homemade hot chocolate provide a hearty start to the day.
Every family has its own recipe for hot chocolate here. Pépé uses a large mortar made from the trunk of a mango tree to grind cocoa beans, which he harvests, dries, and roasts. Once ground, the friction forms a paste. To this, they add their homemade spice blend. Sención uses a spice blend comprising cinnamon, nutmeg, and allspice berries, previously ground in another mortar. Once the spices are mixed into the chocolate paste, they form cakes by hand, which harden as they cool down. To prepare their hot chocolate, they grate the hard paste and dissolve the shavings in hot water or milk. Sención’s hot chocolate was truly delicious and had a unique taste. “Drinking hot chocolate in the Dominican Republic that was grown, fermented, roasted, spiced and prepared for us by cacao farmers on their own farms was amazing and delicious!” testified Renu. It was an ideal drink to start the day.
Learning by doing: the steps involved in preparing the cocoa beans
Around 6 a.m., Pépé and the other farmers start harvesting their cocoa beans. The cocoa pods, shaped like rugby balls, grow on the trees all year round. The most important harvest takes place between January and April, just before the rainy season. The uneven terrain and delicate nature of the pods mean harvesting by hand is crucial, and to ensure the trees continue to produce pods, clean cuts are necessary. The growers collect the fruit using machetes and long poles fitted with hooks to reach the pods higher up on the branches of the cocoa trees.
Once a good pile has accumulated, they open the pods with machetes, releasing the cocoa beans coated in a white pulp called baba. The “heart” containing the beans is gently extracted from the pod; breaking it apart with their fingers, the beans, still covered in pulp, come loose and are collected in buckets. With its sweet, slightly acidic taste reminiscent of mango and lychee, the pulp will be used to ferment the beans, a crucial step in revealing the cocoa beans’ aromas.
Sunaina shared her experience “Being able to be in the field and harvest the cacao fruit and then taste the pulp was such an amazing experience, especially when seeing how skilled the farmers were and how difficult it was when I tried”. Once several buckets have been filled, farmers like Pépé and his cousin Antonio, who live far from the collection centers, pour the beans into large barrels, waiting for the co-operative’s vehicles to collect them from this mountainous region, usually once a week.
When producers deliver their cocoa beans to a collection center or a driver, they receive an amount corresponding to the current purchasing price from their co-op. The producers’ names and the weight of the beans delivered are recorded on a receipt, a copy of which is given to the producer, while the other remains in possession of the collection center to ensure the traceability of the batch. The beans will be tested to verify their organic nature. Producers selling into the Fairtrade system receive a guaranteed minimum of $2400 per metric ton (MT). If their cocoa beans are organic, they will receive an additional $300/MT. The Fairtrade premiums paid on the exported cocoa beans are remitted once annually to their co-operatives and redistributed back to their community to fund local projects and producer-specific requests, as decided democratically among the members.
Some farmers take care of the fermentation and the drying of their cocoa beans directly on their farms. This process requires a great deal of knowledge and adequate equipment. Since this step is so crucial to developing the cocoa’s flavours and guaranteeing a quality product, fermenting and drying are now more often carried out by their co-operative’s technicians in dedicated centers with specialized equipment, allowing better control and harmonization of this essential process. We were lucky to visit one of the fermentation and drying centers where FUNDOPO’s cocoa beans are delivered and experience firsthand that part of the process.
The first step was to empty the bags and sort through the cocoa beans. “It was fast but careful work. They showed me how to sort out pieces of excess pulp and pods or debris, and shared tips for detecting undesirable or over-fermented beans”, shared Caitlin. Then the beans are poured into large totes for fermentation. There are various methods for fermenting beans, all of which share in common the central aspect of storing the wet pulpy beans compactly in an enclosed container. For instance, whereas FUNDOPO uses these large totes, the CONACADO “bloques” utilize the waterfall method in wooden containers. The installations are outdoors to expose the fermenting beans to the natural heat and humidity of this climate essential to the process. The duration of the fermentation process varies from 5 to 7 days, depending on regions, temperatures, and humidity levels.
Once the beans have fermented, recognizable by their beautiful brown colour with slight shades of purple and well-defined grooves, they are dried in the sun. Again, the type of installation can vary; they can be dried on the ground, on raised wooden racks, or on sieves; drying can take place right under the sun or under cover. Cocoa beans are stirred and turned several times a day with a shovel or a rake, which is no easy task, especially when they are still wet. They are heavy and their viscosity makes the ground slippery. Each of us had the opportunity to participate in turning the beans over, which turned out to be quite comical. Let’s just say we weren’t really used to it. It takes a lot of strength and stamina, especially in the hot sun. After a few days of drying, the cocoa beans are packed and stored into 25 kg bags or 500 kg large-capacity totes, mainly for export.
Organized democratic groups: engines of emancipation.
Cocoa farmers stand a better chance of improving their quality of life by joining forces, creating or joining a democratically operated organization to defend their interests. Producer co-operatives and producer associations offer many advantages to farmers, particularly those living in remote areas: collective bargaining power; access to local and international markets; access and management of certification programs such as organic and Fairtrade; sharing of knowledge and skills; access to equipment and other means of production at affordable prices; access to credit, loans and other financial services; quality assurance programs; community and social development programs.
During our stay, we witnessed the crucial role and difference that co-operatives and associations make in the farming communities we visited. Significant improvements were made possible with the Fairtrade premiums and other grants that co-operatives or associations can access. Installations for running water in homes, building roads to link isolated villages and facilitate the transportation of cocoa beans, as well as the construction of community centers are just a few examples. Community centers provide crucial central hubs for socializing and facilitating programming as well as, incidentally, hosting an evening party for the whole village and the delegation to enjoy the rhythms of local music and merengue. These initiatives demonstrate the positive impact organized democratic producer groups can have on the well-being of their members and the development of their local communities.
Our journey to the heart of our chocolate supply chain in the Dominican Republic was a transformative experience that left us with a renewed sense of purpose and commitment to positively impacting the world. As we reflect on our time spent with cocoa farmers and the connections we formed, we are filled with an overwhelming sense of re-energized passion and confidence that our work is truly worthwhile. Sunaina shared with us, “As someone who believes strongly in supporting fair trade practices, as someone who is passionate about chocolate, as someone who has been challenged to find ways to actively participate in building the world I want to live in, my investment in La Siembra Co-op / Camino has been at the intersection of everything I was looking for and has opened the door for me to experience things I never knew existed.”
At the heart of our mission lies the necessity to transform the chocolate industry through sustainability and social impact. This journey was not just a mere trip; “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to travel the countryside with a diverse group of like-minded individuals, learning from experts in various fields related to socio-economic and political activities.” Derek’s words capture the essence of the journey – the shared belief in a brighter future for people and the planet, underpinned by camaraderie and collaboration.
The immersion into cocoa farmers’ living and working conditions was eye-opening, making intimate connections with the producer families and members of FUNDOPO. Their warm welcome and heartfelt hospitality touched us deeply, emphasizing the value of forging meaningful relationships across borders and cultures.
This visit to the Dominican Republic also shed light on the pivotal role of democratically organized groups like CONACADO and FUNDOPO in promoting quality, fair trade, and sustainable cocoa farming. These organizations are transforming the country’s cocoa industry, offering producers better living conditions and producing high-quality cocoa that is sought after in international markets.
As we conclude this article, we invite everyone to share and join our mission. Together, our efforts can make a real difference in the lives of cocoa farmers and contribute to a more sustainable and equitable chocolate industry.
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