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Clamour for change in cocoa industry

Monday, May 14, 2012
Clinton Francis offloads a barrow of wet cocoa beans at the San Antonio Estate in Gran Couva. PHOTOS: RISHI RAGOONATH

Trinidad and Tobago is home to the coveted fine flavoured cocoa beans, a prestigious club to which only eight other countries in the world belong. Trinitario Cocoa was once the driving force of the local economy and in the 1930s T&T was the third largest producer of quality cocoa worldwide.


In a study produced by Frances Bekele of the Association of Professional Agricultural Scientists, the 1920s did not only bring the great depression, but there was an overproduction of cocoa worldwide which caused a reduction in its price. “In Trinidad total production decreased as production expanded elsewhere, primarily due to witchbroom disease which precipitated the decline of the cocoa industry, affecting 28 per cent of the viable plantations in 1928,” Bekele said in a recent interview.


“After the 1930s, the cocoa industry was plagued by inefficiencies in the production system, widespread witchbroom disease, reducing yield and unfavourable market prices.” The growth of the energy sector in the 1970s and 1980s was the major blow to cocoa as it further diminished its capabilities, since agricultural labour migrated to the oil belt, said Bekele.


Presently, the total market share of the local cocoa industry is two per cent of the world market and with impending initiatives toward promoting T&T’s food security, the Government hopes to restore cocoa to its past glory days. However, there are past and present factors which prove challenging to this goal.


The general manager at the San Juan Cocoa Estate in Gran Couva, Jude Solomon, revealed: “Poor management structure and scarce labour are plaguing the industry.” Solomon said the discovery of oil and the lucrative possibilities of the energy sector rendered agriculture irrelevant and T&T now produces a mere two per cent of the world’s fine flavoured beans.


Farmers are clamouring for a change in the structure of cocoa management and an increase in labour, which they see as crucial to the revival of the once robust sector. Jude suggested that current structures within the industry are useless to large estates such as the one he oversees.


“Part of the problem is an outdated and useless Cocoa and Coffee Industry Board (CCIB) since it functions like a marketing association.” He said the Cocoa and Coffee Industry Act (CCIA) which brought the CCIB into existence was for the sale of the two commodities and not the development of the respective sectors.


Jude took issue with the fact that it is illegal for cocoa to be sold domestically unless the producer sold directly to the CCIB. The Montserrat Cocoa Farmers (MCF) group of which Solomon is a member, has advocated that the CCIB be immediately replaced by a Cocoa Development Agency (CDA).


He said the CDA will be devoted to increasing cocoa production and eradicating inefficiencies by providing appropriate training to those interested in entering the industry. “How ridiculous is it for the CCIB to not know how many farmers there are, the number of legal land holdings, the type of farmers and the number of viable cocoa trees from various plantations? You cannot implement a plan to assist cocoa unless you know what you have,” he said.


Solomon proposed that the CCIB should introduce a labour import system similar to the one in the United States and Canada. “Labour should be brought from other Caribbean territories in an exchange programme for a period of up to six months on a rotational basis after which they go back home and another set is brought in.”


However, he said the $5,000 cost of work permits for each employee would be too costly for farmers to absorb. Coordinator at CCIB, Anton Waldron, said the Government already has 165 CEPEP workers in training to be used on cocoa plantations.


He said the Ministry of Food Production, Land and Marine Affairs, under its “Agriculture Now Initiative,” will provide training in planting, rehabilitation and harvesting estates. Waldron said the current mandate is to impact production levels for export, therefore harvesting is being done first. But he  could not indicate the timeline for the increase in production saying a number of initiatives have been identified.


These initiatives will drive the process of cocoa revival and the long-term goal of the CCIB is to increase production. He said this will strengthen the competitiveness of local cocoa so that farmers may tap into export markets worldwide. “By amending the structure of managing the industry and increasing labour, the Government would introduce a quality management system,” Waldron said.



Govt to improve structure
•Supporting business people in the industry by registering cocoa and coffee producers and processors into a database;
•Developing infrastructure, roads and bridges to assist the farmers with transport;
•Altering the legislation to allow cocoa farmers to sell to any retailer;
•Opportunities would be created for persons to produce finished goods by using raw cocoa;
•Training 30,000 CEPEP workers for the cocoa industry;
•Providing training in cocoa planting, pruning and harvesting to farmers on their estates;
•Advancing and increasing technology in the production of cocoa which was traditionally labour intensive.


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