Reaping Cocoa Benefits
By Judith Santiago*
June 1, 2011—Rich in history and steeped in culture, the Dominican Republic, which has a population of nearly 10 million people, is the second poorest country in the Caribbean after Haiti with 42.2 percent living under the poverty line. But for cacao farmers who are members of CONACADO Cooperative, life in the cacao business is reaping sweet benefits through fair trade premiums.
Eusebio Velén, 70, from Los Carmito, is one small-scale cacao farmer whose livelihood has improved since he joined Block 2 of CONACADO in Yamasá some eighteen years ago. CONACADO, the National Confederation of Dominican Cocoa Producers, is a democratically-run cooperative that distributes a portion of its cocoa to Equal Exchange and helps small-scale cocoa producers like Eusebio improve their livelihood. The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) met Eusebio during an Interfaith Fair Trade Cocoa Delegation, along with partner Equal Exchange, to visit members of the cooperative and learn how organic cocoa is harvested and processed for the US market.
As a young man, Eusebio witnessed his father’s struggle to make a living under then President Rafael L. Trujillo who reigned from 1930-1961. The prominent dictator promoted economic development, from which only he and his supporters benefitted. The rest of the population suffered severe repression of human rights. In his 30 years of power, Trujillo was reportedly responsible for the death of more than 50,000 people, including 20,000 to 30,000 Haitian civilians in the infamous Parsley Massacre.
Eusebio lived through that time and shakes his head with sorrow as he silently recalls the events. With only a fifth-grade education, he latched onto a friend who was successful at harvesting cacao and learned how to work the fields. Since becoming a CONACADO member, Eusebio has been able to maintain his home-side cacao farm, as well as a small lot in Peravilla, where he has two workers and a mule to help with farm maintenance. Eusebio also cares for Vitalina, his wife of 42 years, and Kisuiry, 20, one of five daughters who lives at home. He estimates that on average he earns some RD$20,000 pesos (approximately USD$530.00) a year from cacao bean sales to CONACADO. This year, however, earnings for a successful harvest are unpredictable as Yamasá is experiencing a dry season. In addition to weather determinants, the income of small-scale cocoa producers are also tied to the volatile price of cocoa on the New York and London stock markets.
Block 2, where Eusebio is a member, is one of seven blocks that make up 162 smaller producer associations to CONACADO’s structure. These blocks help centralize CONACADO’s cocoa-producing activities and include more than 10,000 members. CONACADO teaches farmer groups how to improve the quality of their plantations and their harvests, helping farmers increase their earnings and improve their living conditions. The cooperative is also the largest national exporter of organic cocoa in the world, exporting 25 percent of fair trade product that go to the US.
Credit Unions Provide Hope
Sixto Capellán, another cocoa producer for Block 2 says in Spanish, “I have four children in public school and I’m using what I earn through CONACADO to save for my children’s college education.”
Many of the CONACADO members are working to better their livelihood. And, thanks to two recently-opened credit unions, farmers like Sixto can prepare for the next harvest or survive a dry season by taking out small loans.
CONACADO’s credit union in Yamasá, made up of 600 member partners, began financing producers with RD$37,000 pesos (approximately USD$980.00). In six months, since it opened its doors, the credit union has provided RD$1.25 million (approximately USD$33,125) in financing support. Grupo COOPNACADO, just shy of four months old, offers low interest loans to workers that average USD$800-$1,000, depending upon the farmer’s ability to pay.
“Before they (farmers) used to borrow from the banks and paid very high interest rates, up to 30 percent, but now they can save money,” said Ranglis Ramirez, COOPNACADO’s manager.
During UMCOR’s visit, Alfonso Rosa, a credit union client, trades in 64 kilos (or 141 pounds) of cacao beans in exchange for the current market price. He expressed that he trades in what he can to help make ends meet until the next harvest season which begins in October.
Microloans Make Way for New Business Ventures
Women and Action (Asociación Mujer & Acción), is an association of 10 women that received funding assistance from CONACADO’s credit union to start their cocoa business. Julia Moreno, treasurer for Women and Action said in Spanish, “We solicited help from CONACADO to secure a place, a piece of land, so we could begin selling sweets.”
The association began with a microloan from CONACADO to purchase the needed supplies to make their cocoa products. Within three months they paid back the loan. Later, Women and Action were approved for a larger loan, a portion of which came from FLO (Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International), and with that loan, they were able to purchase a title deed for a small plot of land to operate their cocoa business. Today, the women sell homemade cocoa products such as marmalade made from the inside of the cacao pod, cocoa powder, cocoa wine, and other sweets. These products line the shelves of their small store. The women organize several social events to help create awareness for their products, and each member invests a portion of their earnings back into the business.
Investments Benefit Communities
Pouring fair trade investments back into CONACADO’s base associations is part of the democratic voice raised by its members to improve their communities. In Yamasá, cacao premiums were used to construct a well for a local primary school, as well as help in making school repairs. Cooperative members decide what the community priorities are and take a vote. The projects voted upon are presented to the co-op’s board (representatives of the seven blocks) for approval of funding. The funds may go to improve water supply, provide scholarships, purchase additional drying facilities to dry fermented cacao beans, or develop additional nurseries for cacao.
While the Dominican Republic’s export portfolio consists of traditional agriculture products like sugar, coffee, tobacco, it seems that its market for organic cocoa is gaining momentum. CONACADO helps small-scale farmers reap the benefits through improved technologies such as the cooperative’s cocoa production facilities that help boost producing potential. Therefore, fewer cacao farmers abandon their properties every year. It’s an incentive that is paying off in many ways-- community empowerment, sustainable development, preservation and conservation of the nearby forests, wormeries that turn waste into organic compost, and overall livelihood improvement.
UMCOR Coffee Project
United Methodists can support small-scale cocoa producers like Eusebio and others, through purchases of fair trade cocoa products or other fair trade goods by selecting the UMCOR Coffee Project when you make your purchases online through the Equal Exchange Interfaith Store. For every pound of fair trade product sold through the UMCOR Coffee Project, a portion goes to support small-scale farmers through the Sustainable Agriculture & Development Program, UMCOR Advance #982188. For more information about CONACADO, please click here.
*Santiago is the Media Communications Associate for UMCOR