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The challenge of fair-trade chocolate

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“What we’re seeing is rapid growth in demand, so there’s ample room for increased production,” says Laura Raynolds, codirector of Colorado State University’s Center for Fair and Alternative Trade Studies in Fort Collins. But “as this market expands, does it begin to undermine the initial values that the movement seeks to espouse?” Ms. Raynolds doesn’t think so, but others aren’t so sure.

On an overcast March day in Yamasá, in a hilly region north of Santo Domingo, the sour smell of the white-fleshed cacao fruit pervades the air. Smoke rises from burning coconut husks, used to roast the cacao seeds. Young men, balancing 150-pound bags of cacao on their heads, make their way toward a warehouse of CONACADO’S Block 2. The piles of labeled sacks inside will end up in Europe, the US, and Japan.

From the beginning, Mr. de la Rosa knew that the farmers’ only chance of entering the cacao trade directly lay in circumventing the Dominican middlemen who controlled access to the market. That meant moving into a different market entirely: high-quality chocolate in Europe.

Then, as world chocolate prices plummeted in the 1990s, CONACADO moved into the emerging organic market, where prices were substantially higher. By historical artifact, Dominican cacao farmers were perfectly positioned to enter the new niche market. Relatively poor, they had never adopted the pesticide- and fertilizer-intensive methods of modern agriculture. To go organic, they didn’t have to radically alter their farming practices, says Raynolds. Initially, they profited from being the first in the organic market, but as competitors emerged, CONACADO needed a new edge.

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