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The challenge of fair-trade chocolate

Fair trade brought sweet success to Dominican cacao farmers. Why more demand might take profits away.

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Fair-trade growers of cacao beans, like these in the hands of a Belizean farmer, operate according to strict standards that help boost wages for workers.

Daniel Leclair/Reuters

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For decades, the Dominican Republic exported tons of low-grade cacao, the chocolate bean, primarily to the United States for use in products like chocolate bars and powdered cocoa. Most of the profits from these sales flowed to a few Dominican companies, which dominated the industry. Relatively little trickled down to the island nation’s tens of thousands of small-scale cacao farmers.

So in the early 1980s, when a German technical-assistance group proposed improving the quality of Dominican cacao, government economist Isidoro de la Rosa embraced the plan – with a twist. Instead of implementing a centralized fermentation system to improve the chocolate, as the Germans proposed, he urged a decentralized approach. Associations of Dominican farmers would learn the fermentation process. An umbrella organization would sell directly to world buyers on their behalf.

From that seed of an idea has sprung a powerhouse. The National Confederation of Dominican Cacao Producers (CONACADO), formed in 1988, has 182 associations organized into eight regional blocks. With a 60 percent share, it’s the biggest single exporter in the small but rapidly growing world market for organic cacao. And it has become a big player in another growing market: fair-trade certified chocolate.

Now, some wonder whether success is going to spoil CONACADO’s recipe. As fair trade continues to grow, will its transition into the mainstream enhance its prospects – or prove it to be, ironically, unsustainable?

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