It’s Thursday, August 5—showtime. Another impressive turnout of promoters, and, despite Kat’s lamentable absence from the lineup, Kate and Janell appear no less effective at tag-teaming the charla business in Omoa. Promoters here work with farmers of the San Fernando cooperative, a subsidiary of sorts of the larger Aprocacaho cooperative. Aprocacaho sells 155,000 pounds of beans a year—most of it to Chocolat Halba in Switzerland—fetching a little more than a dollar per pound. In 1997 the cooperative took out a loan and built a processing plant to extract cocoa butter, the rich, concentrated stuff added to improve the creamy quality of almost all chocolatey products the world over. Almost as a bonus, grinding the dregs of this de-fatted cacao results in the bitter, brown dust we all know as cocoa powder. So this processing plant—the only one in Honduras and one of the few in all of Central America—with its dual-purpose processing, proved to be quite the asset—that is, until the cooperative defaulted on its loan, thus relinquishing ownership to another organization that stepped in shortly afterward. Now the plant stands vacant and defunct, but the cooperative’s got its eye on it yet. This is an example where a tad more administrative and organizational training could have helped to improve the cooperative’s business and the lives of their members. So if you want your dollar to go a little bit further when buying fine chocolate, here is a great example of what that money helps support. Aprocacaho is in the process (year two of three) of getting its organic and fair trade certifications, and once these are attained the cooperative will likely see higher profits, and—who knows—maybe have a better chance of reclaiming the plant.
Sure, organically grown, fairly traded chocolate is all good and well, but what does this mean from a cacao cooperative’s standpoint? And why, at production line’s end, does said chocolate cost more than the average Hershey bar at the checkout stand? These are questions that (hopefully) should concern every chocolate consumer, from cavity-addled kids to chocoholic moms to the most discerning connoisseurs. The answers vary from place to place, though, so we’ll stick to the Central American regions in our ken—the cacao we know about. Most importantly, we ask, is the costlier chocolate worth it?
First let’s discuss the relationship between a cacao cooperative and its status as an organic and/or Fair Trade operation. Within the scope of human history and our history with chocolate, cacao has only recently been labeled a cash crop. For this reason, here in Central America, people are still trying to work out the kinks of the industry, smoothing it out in a way that will best protect the environment, preserve cultures, and economically benefit producers and their families. In Central America, cacao isn’t confined to one or two big industrial-style monoculture farms. Rather, families, usually in rural, lowland areas, produce cacao on a small plot of land, within a sustainable agroforestry system of fruit, timber and food for their families. Since small producers of cacao are so geographically dispersed, a central organizing force becomes necessary to ensure that not only does all cacao meets standards for quality through the fermenting and drying processes, but that it all winds up in the same place to be stored, and then shipped around the world to processing plants to make the products we all know and love. Before cooperatives came around, farmers sold to middlemen, leaving farmers at the mercy of market fluctuations and the mood of the buyer. The middlemen take a chunk of the profit, reducing the farmer’s income. Over the last ten years, more cooperatives have sprung up around Central America, creating organized groups of farmers ready to improve their production and business.
This is where the importance of training and organizing farmers comes in. Projects like PCC (Central American Cacao Project, administrated by CATIE, a tropical research institute) hire promoters as regional extension agents to help cacao farmers increase production and improve the quality of their product. As the demand for organic chocolate increases, farmers must incorporate new farming techniques into the ways their families have harvested cacao for generations. Many Central American cacao farmers use organic practices—since chemicals are costly, and for the most part, unnecessary— new techniques must be learned to increase production to meet demand. This takes planning, time and money. Promoters of regional cooperatives help farmers figure out the most feasible way to grow enough quality cacao to meet the market interest.
Generally, transitioning from conventional farming to organic certification status is a costly process that takes two to three years. Becoming Fair Trade certified also requires time, loads of paperwork, and again, money. A common misconception, however, is that only organic and Fair Trade certified products are verifiably organic and fairly traded. Labels and the lack thereof can be deceptive. The cooperatives we’ve visited so far on this trip (in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala) have not obtained Fair Trade or organic certifications, yet the farmers still use organic practices and are paid a price per pound for their cacao that is comparable, if not more than, the price earned by Fair Trade and organically certified farmers in Panama. The take-home message then, is that relying on labels alone can lead a consumer astray, or at least away from equally reputable producers of quality cacao.
So back to answering the question of why Fair Trade, organic bean-to-bar chocolate, such as that produced by Theo Chocolate based in Seattle, Washington, costs more than a conventional bar from a company like Hershey or Nestle. Or rather, why should a person consider opting for the pricier product? In a nutshell, paying the extra dollar or two often pays for quality, organic farming techniques, and ensuring that farmers are paid a decent price for their product. Buying a bar from a bean-to-bar company like Theo Chocolate or Askinosie, based in Springfield, Missouri, also ensures the cacao takes a more direct route from farm to company. Theo and Askinosie purchase their cacao directly from cooperatives around the world. This cuts out the extra step of sending cacao to European processing plants before it reaches the actual chocolate company, which also reduces the carbon footprint. Thus, a dollar spent on a Theo or Askinosie bar can more directly impact and benefit cacao farmers than a dollar spent on a more conventional product. And, rest assured, these consumer dollars have a visible impact on the lives of farmers. Maria, a Honduran cacao farmer and single mother, was able to rebuild her house after an earthquake destroyed it last year with the money she earned from one season’s cacao harvest. In Panama, members of Kate and Janell’s communities set goals to save or reinvest cacao earnings in order to buy necessities like new roofs for houses, school uniforms for their children, or livestock. Growing cacao is also a sustainable way to conserve fragile tropical ecosystems. Responsibly harvesting this renewable resource can preserve a symbiotic relationship between communities and their environment.
So basically, if you are a conscientious consumer who either cares about the livelihoods of farmers in developing countries, or about conserving and restoring rainforests, or both, a fairly traded, organic bar of chocolate may seem worth the extra price. By receiving a fair price for their cacao, farmers begin to value their work and feel empowered to improve their own lives instead of waiting around for international donations and government handouts. Moreover, if you care enough, you can research your favorite brands to find out where the cacao is sourced from, to help decide where you want your money to go, and who you want to support.
So, to wrap it up, when you hand over your money for a fine bar of chocolate, some of that dough goes to employees of the chocolate factory, and some pays for the quality ingredients and careful preparation of the final hunk of chocolately goodness. A chunk of change supports the improvement of socially and environmentally responsible production. Another portion gets delivered to the cacao cooperatives so they can pay their workers and extension agents who provide technical support for farmers. And finally, farmers earn a decent sum that will improve their family’s quality of life and help them continue to take good care of their land and the environment.
Anyway, back to our story. Following the nutrition charla, Don Guadalupe, the congenial and longwinded vice president and founder of Aprocacaho, invites us to his home for a healthy snack of Pringles, pork rinds, fried plantains and the ubiquitous Pepsi, which in Honduras, Guadalupe confides, is consumed in greater quantities than water. Guadalupe proudly tours us through his spacious pad, complete with caged tropical birds, African art, and a swimming pool. His son, who now works as a United Nations Food AID distributor, designed and built the house after his successful endeavors as a pilot. It’s evident that Guadalupe and his family have worked hard, and their material signs of wealth seem well deserved since Guadalupe has spearheaded many successes for the cooperative. In his home, we simultaneously feel relaxed in the arms of luxury and puzzled by the drastic division of wealth in Honduras, a country where some people can afford surround-sound home entertainment systems, while others are surrounded by the seemingly insurmountable walls of poverty.
Our experience the next day is a tad more humbling, since we convene outside a small casa high in the hills, owned by the aforementioned, kindhearted cacao farmer named Maria. The cacao promoters expertly lead the seminar, emphasizing the central message that a nutritious diet is not the privilege of a few, but reasonably obtainable by anyone with some soil, seeds, a little bit of knowhow and a local store thrown in for good measure.
Meanwhile, Maria is preparing a hearty stew with a beef base and generous portions of fresh corn, potato, yucca, carrot and squash. She pats soft, cream-colored dough into perfectly round tortillas. The sound of tortillas slapping back and forth from palm to palm has become a favorite of ours in the Honduran soundtrack. Janell equates the sound to horses clip clopping down cobblestones, but Devon argues that surely it is the clap clap slap noise a fat man must make when he happily pats his belly. Peter sides with Devon, affirming with full confidence that there could not be a more accurate description, for reasons that are not fully elaborated. All noise comparisons aside, Kate decides she must learn how to make tortillas before the trip is over, and she and Devon receive a tutorial on the art of slap slap slapping.
The task seems easy enough, but Kate and Devon clearly lack the technique, as their floppy disks of dough repeatedly tear apart or resemble the shapes of oblong amoebas more than perfectly rounded saucers. After all the tortillas have been repaired and prepared, lunch is served. Maria’s stew and Kate and Devon’s tortillas are veritable hits.
Following the charla, Don Guadalupe whisks Kate, Alyssa and Devon up the hill in his Jeep Wrangler to the cooperative’s new center for fermenting and drying cacao beans. The cooperative has chosen prime real estate, indeed. The sweeping view of the Caribbean is a glistening aqua seascape from the center’s lofty location high on a hilltop. Guadalupe gives the grand tour of the innovative setup for drying, efficiently fermenting, and storing the beans. Kate is impressed by the cooperative’s attention to quality control, evident in the sophisticated yet simple design. The system is equipped with a wood-fire dryer, an appropriate technology that uses an attainable resource in a way locals are accustomed to, in addition to preventing weather from negatively impacting the quality of the beans. Although the cooperative has big dreams for the future, Kate sees these initial steps taken by Aprocacaho as a good indicator that their goals may someday be fulfilled.
After the tour, we part ways with Guadalupe and say a sad farewell to our gracious host, Ramón, co-founder of the San Fernando cacao cooperative and the local agricultural extension agent. We then catch a van back to Choloma, where our bikes are stored beside a cozy little office, which would be our accommodation for the night. The office belongs to Aprocacaho, and it comes with all the amenities we could ask for: internet access, microwave, refrigerator/freezer unit, air-conditioning, 24-hour surveillance, and occasional running water. Dinner that night is popcorn, garlic mashed potatoes with steamed broccoli and hot chocolate—all prepared via microwave—followed by a tub of ice cream we kept relatively cold (though not frozen) in the freezer.
In the morning we ride into the metropolis of San Pedro Sula, where Janell and Logan hop on a bus bound for Quimistan, 80 kilometers distant. The others follow on their bikes, cruising along the gently undulating terrain that has come to characterize this part of Honduras. After a long, hot slog in the sun, Alyssa, Devon and Kate indulge in some cold fresh fruit drinks at a random smoothie stand along the side of the road. The girls are so grateful for this unexpected surprise that Alyssa swears its existence must only be ephemeral and anxiously nabs a smoothie before the mirage disappears. The journey continues for a longer distance than anticipated, but the group receives a flowery email from Logan describing the quaint little town of Quimistan. They gratefully learn that their destination is a quiet place of home-baked muffins and free international phone calls, rather than the imagined skyline of chemical-spewing smokestacks. With heightened spirits, the group presses on to Quimistan. That night, food is eaten, TV is watched, and a number of international phone calls are made.
On Sunday, the team enjoys a scenic cycle to La Entrada, a metropolitan strip of no real note, save for the fact that here we enjoy one of our final tastes of a favorite Honduran foodstuff: the baleada. Eggs, beans, cheese and sometimes meat or avocado folded into a piping hot, fresh tortilla.
We leave La Entrada on Monday the next morning and start the day off with the Hill that Never Ends. What makes the climb doable is the gradual grade, and what makes the ascent almost enjoyable is the Sound of Music type of terrain. The views are so green and charming, we half-expect to see Julie Andrews frolicking up and down the hillsides. But Peter and Logan snap back to reality when they are accosted by a feisty gang of rural kids brandishing machetes and demanding money. Peter and Logan call the children’s bluff, but pick up the pace and quickly bypass the situation. Despite a few false summits, we eventually begin our descent to Copan, a colonial style tourist town with uneven cobblestone streets, an inviting feel, and located in close proximity to a well-preserved maze of Mayan ruins.
We spend most of the day Tuesday travelling back in time (sans hot tub—that witty joke was meant for Kat, Logan and Peter), to an era where the “beautiful people” have flat foreheads, green dentures and crossed eyes. Our guide through the ruins, Juan Carlos, has a welcome sense of humor and shines a lot of light on ancient Mayan culture. We shamelessly play the tourist card again and again; taking many posed group photos in front of statues and carved stone images, in addition to building a human pyramid atop a Mayan one. How clever is that?
That evening, Kate experiences a small-world moment when we discover that we’re staying at the same hostel as Mary and Nora, who both grew up in Kate’s hometown of Anacortes, Washington. We all immediately become friends and spend an enjoyable time together crossing paths over the next few days. Thanks for hanging out, girls!
On Wednesday, finally, the day has come. Cycles of Change will make their highly anticipated grand entrance into Guatemala, a country where dreams will come true, much food will be eaten, and a whole lot of shopping will commence! Honduras was fun in retrospect, and the adventures that were had will never be forgotten, but the team is giddy with excitement about hopping across the border. Almost too giddy. Devon is so jubilant at the prospect that she nearly wheels herself into a roadside ditch. She recovers quickly and the rest of the ride to the border proceeds without incident. The border crossing is as effortless as a Slip ‘n’ Slide, seamlessly sliding us on through.
The team bids a bittersweet farewell to Honduras, land of rough roads and gun-toting cowboys, where Pepsi reigns supreme, and the distribution of wealth is polarized dramatically. Although we have concluded that most Honduran mall cops and Wendy’s security guards are bossy, power-hungry humbugs with sizeable sticks up their fannies, the kindness shown to us by the wonderful folks in Omoa left a lasting positive impression of their beautiful country. Ramón became our surrogate father during our brief stay and we are immensely grateful for his patience and benevolence. Don Guadalupe’s earnest generosity and his way with words—even when his words often meandered in an endless stream—were also appreciated and enjoyed. But even as we part ways with yet another country, we know full well that new adventures will surely be had, we’ll continue to meet wonderful people and be the recipients of even more gestures of kindness. We know Guatemala won’t let us down. Guatever our expectations may be, Guatemala will meet and exceed them.*
*Thus far, Guatemala has far exceeded our expectations… so much so that we haven’t yet found the time to recount our experiences on the blog. We apologize for the delay. We appreciate your patience and your continued readership! And, as always, we absolutely love receiving your comments!
Also, thank you Gary and Dara for the electrolyte powder! We have consumed it joyfully and have saved the backup stash like you suggested.
For more information about organic certification, Fair Trade, Equal Exchange, Theo and Askinosie Chocolate, here are some links: