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Challenges and Opportunities in Trinidad and Tobago’s Fine Cocoa Sector

Featured at Inter-American Development Bank / Compete Caribbean and World Fair Trade Organization Europe

Agriculture is a practice that began long before us - or, at least since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, when homo sapiens experienced a critical transition, evolving from hunter-gatherers to farming villagers (Harari, 2014). Homo sapiens strove towards a far more fruitful future than the one that was lived by their ancestors, who spent a lifetime dedicated to whatever the present space offered. Agriculture is defined as “the art and science of cultivating the soil, growing crops, and raising livestock. It includes the preparation of plant and animal products for people to use and their distribution to markets” (National Geographic, 2011). Yet, the agricultural sector is, despite its immense body of knowledge and experience, a space that is highly vulnerable and continuously exposed to socio-economic, socio-political, and environmental forces. This writing is dedicated to exploring some of the challenges experienced by Trinitario Cocoa farmers and leaves space for future narratives that demonstrate the solutions they have found to cope with the challenges respectively.

Within my research and field visits, I learned that Trinidad and Tobago has given rise to a very special and highly regarded variety of Theobroma Cacao – or Cocoa – that has won multiple awards and recognitions at international cocoa and chocolate events. Some of these awardees are amongst the farmers that will be introduced over the coming weeks as a result of their love and passion for the Original Trinitario Cocoa. But Trinitario Cocoa’s future is challenged in multiple aspects – environmentally, economically, and socially.

Javed Omardeen, one of the cluster farmers who cultivates the Little Hermit Estate in Brasso Seco, uses its fruity flavored, award-winning cocoa beans to create the Omarbeans Organic Chocolate, shares that “although high-quality cocoa is produced in Trinidad and Tobago, there has been some history that took place in the last century that affected not only the price of cocoa, the interest of getting into it as a business, but also the general work ethic”. In a nutshell, cocoa’s peak production and sales to export markets took place between the 1866s and 1920s (Bekele, 2004) and represented the main source of Trinidad and Tobago’s economic wealth at the time. With the advent of oil and natural gas and its high financial gains, the government decided to lead the country in an industrialized direction that placed economic emphasis on developing the nation’s petroleum products. The petroleum sector promised much to those directly employed in the industry and by extension allowed the government to pay livable salaries to civil servants. Growth in the burgeoning energy industry precipitated a type of attrition from the agricultural sector with its slower, more land-centric culture.

Environmentally, this strategy of the government to subsidize more progressive industries, such as the oil and gas industry, and to place focus on strengthening economic value reinforced farmers shifting away from traditional small-scale farming to systems that reinforced more modernized farming practices that promised large outputs. These practices rely heavily on agrochemical inputs and monoculture crops that defined success solely in terms of quantity and profits. Increasing challenges posed by climate change, such as changing climate patterns – for instance too much rain in one region or too much drought in another – affected the cycle of cocoa pollinators and gave rise to a variety of diseases which ultimately impacted the productivity of local cocoa trees. Consequently, farmers find themselves trapped in a vicious cycle of relying year-after-year, season-after-season, on agrochemicals to not only fight pests that harm their crops, but also to synthetically replenish nutrients to over-stressed soils.

Furthermore, Javed shares that “not only have historical influences directly degraded the work ethic, culture, and attitude towards Original Trinitario Cocoa but has had other indirect effects too”. As a natural consequence of the crippling of the industry, additional challenges befell the few remaining farmers. Buyers of raw cocoa became scarce as the price of Original Trinitario Cocoa increased, and the global market’s preference shifted to cheaper bulk cocoa sourced from West African regions. Consequently, farmers’ interest in Trinitario Cocoa cultivation declined and facilities for fermenting and drying were abandoned. Not only has low productivity caused decreasing incomes from the farmers’ crops, but the low incomes made it unappealing for upcoming generations to practice agriculture. And, despite more recent global efforts to foster greater transparency and fair-trade practices in product supply chains, a lack of economic incentives and scarcity of skilled agricultural extension officers has created new barriers for farmers. Out of reach are access to additional resources allowing for training in farming practices, post-harvest protocols, cocoa processing, the skills and habit of recording data, as well as access to existing funding including grants, and promotion of added-value possibilities. Consequently, Trinidad and Tobago faces strong competition with other Trinitario Cocoa-producing regions, as it struggles to meet global demands and quality standards.

From a social stance, these environmental and economic challenges have had a tremendous impact on the society’s relationship to Original Trinitario Cocoa. The combined effect of the hardships of agricultural work, few economic incentives, and now uncertainties posed by climate change, have created a condition that has kept Trinbagonians further away from a sector they never idealized - traditional agriculture. As a consequence, young people are increasingly becoming less interested in getting into the family farming business and continue the cultivation of cocoa. Thus, the status of Original Trinitario Cocoa is 'endangered' and government and industry are becoming more aware of the necessity to stimulate new interest in sustainable farming by creating more attractive conditions for farmers.

Nowadays, various institutions acknowledge that natural resources are limited and economic as well as educational systems must be shifted to more responsible models that support family-owned, small-scale, fair-trade, and circular farming communities to ensure Original Trinitario Cocoa’s survival in the long term. On top of that, increasing environmental phenomena like climate change and poor soil health demonstrate that it is inevitable to return to an agricultural system that works more in harmony with nature. Yet, despite increasing efforts for transparency and fair-trade practices, the lack of economic incentives remains a tremendous challenge for farmers; Thus, societies that could place more emphasis and appreciation on the gifts of their soil, feel as if becoming a farmer meant that they go backward in development. Javed says that “this is one of the main things holding the sector back”. But one must keep in mind that returning to systems that are more in harmony with nature does not condemn progress nor imply a backward development that turns away from modern solutions. On the contrary, it emphasizes that solutions have to be critically reflected upon and focus has to turn away from purely profit-centered orientation to an educational approach that generates social, environmental, and economic value for all stakeholders involved.

You may understand now that in order to grasp the contextual forces historically and presently impacting the success of individual farmers as well as the collective Original Trinitario Cocoa industry, one has to understand the complex dynamics between the above-mentioned social, environmental and economic influences. Thus, it is important to learn about the very unique setting of Trinidad and Tobago and its rich yet challenged cocoa industry to bring about change that has a responsible and long-lasting impact. But what can be done to ensure cocoa’s survival? To find out, I spoke with farmers, cocoa processors, and experts and found many private sector-led initiatives that are in place or being developed to change the existing relationship with cocoa while capturing greater social, environmental, and economic value both at origin and globally. Throughout this storytelling initiative, made possible thanks to the collaborative efforts between Compete Caribbean and Übergreen Organics, different members will share their insights – because the wheel really does not need to be reinvented! Much of the required knowledge is there, created by our ancestors, transmitted over generations and spaces. However, one must acknowledge that these solutions will have to be critically reflected and adjusted over and over again because there is no one-fits-all solution in contexts that are highly vulnerable to external forces.

So, a lot is happening and I am very grateful to be part of this space, capturing the dynamics of responsible change. In the upcoming stories, we will meet the farmers and get to know some narratives about who they are and what they do to cope with the context they currently experience.

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