BBC News
July 12, 2004

No sweet life for cocoa farmers

By James Menendez
BBC correspondent in Venezuela

Any chocolate maker worth his salt (or sugar) knows that to make the best chocolate, you need the best cocoa.

Venezuelan cocoa has long been prized by the Belgians and the Swiss for its unique aroma.

The very best beans come from the lush forests of the central Caribbean coast - places like Ocumare where the hot, humid climate is ideal.

But despite that international reputation, cocoa farmers here have often struggled to survive.

Now in his late 60s, Juan Luis Lira has spent all his life farming cocoa.

Like most people in this community, he is a direct descendant of African slaves, brought here by Spanish colonists during the cocoa boom of the 17th Century.

When the Spanish left after independence, the workers stayed behind.

Cocoa remained the life-blood of the local economy but prices never recovered.

Families leaving

A few years ago, things got so bad that many families were forced to leave.

"Cocoa prices hit rock bottom," Mr Lira recalls. "The money it produced simply wasn't enough to support a family. And in the end, cocoa is all we have in this village."

While some left for the city, others decided to cut down the cocoa and sow new crops instead.

But that meant cutting down all the other trees as well, threatening the pristine rain forest that surrounds Ocumare.

At the moment, cocoa prices are more stable but many farmers have not come back.

Preservation project

One local project is trying to change that. The idea is that by encouraging people to return to cocoa production, Ocumare's traditional culture will be preserved and therefore so will the forest.

That is because unlike other crops, cocoa trees rely on the rainforest canopy to survive.

"Cocoa is environmentally friendly because it needs permanent shade," project agronomist Jairo Nogales says.

"And it's only going to get that shade if it's surrounded by tall trees - precisely the sort of trees that grow in this forest."

But the benefits of cocoa are not obvious to everyone.

Persuading people to return to the land is hard. Many of the children and grandchildren of Ocumare's farmers already have new lives in Venezuela's towns and cities.

Felix Pacheco is one exception.

For years, he was a mechanic travelling three hours every day to the nearest city to work.

Now, at the age of 33, he has become a farmer.

"We need to educate people about what they've got here," he says. "Cocoa is worth its weight in gold, it really is. In other countries, they recognise how valuable it is, but not here."

Ocumare's cocoa could soon become even more valuable. One of the aims of the project is to make it organic, the first in Venezuela.

So, for example, chemical fertilisers are banned. Instead, producers are encouraged to use the empty husks of the cocoa pods to produce compost.

If the project is successful, the plantations could be certified as organic by the end of the year.

"They'll be accessing a different market," says Anita Reina of Tierra Viva, the non-profit organisation overseeing the project. "A different market that's going to be better paid."

At the moment, that means producers receiving two or even three times as much for their crop.

That would seem to be a powerful incentive. Whether it is enough to persuade the next generation to carry on the tradition, is impossible to predict.