In January-February 2012, I spent one month exploring cacao farming, processing and trade in Grenada and the Dominican Republic. It was a fantastic experience that enriched me personally and professionally in many ways. This is the first in a series of blogs on the trip, and provides an overview of the trip and its purpose.
My primary goals were to deepen my understanding of what it takes to get cacao from tree to the point of sale, market dynamics, how certifications are manifested at the producer level, how small-scale producers can engage in value-added processing and the everyday lives of farming communities, and make connections in the field. I sought this knowledge to inform my intended graduate studies and subsequent work in international agricultural development, to ensure my work would be shaped by the communities I want to benefit. Though I’d developed strong working knowledge visiting cacao producers in Nicaragua and Ecuador on shorter, organized trips, and coordinating speaking tours with fair trade producer representatives, I wanted to immerse myself in a richer experience to build on that. Practicing Spanish was also a goal, given its wide use in the cocoa sector.
My week in Grenada found me knee deep in cacao—literally. I stayed on an organic cacao farm in Northwest Grenada named Crayfish Bay. It’s run by Kim Russell, a proud Grenadian citizen from the UK who visited, fell in love with the island nation and purchased an overgrown, hurricane-stricken cacao estate that he’s rehabilitating with great dedication and effort—and a terrific crew of workers and other helping hands. Kim’s farm, Crayfish Bay, has a cottage for travelers and welcomes guests to get involved in the farms activities. His cacao is wonderful, and is used by the Grenada Chocolate Company, as he’s part of a grower’s co-op that owns part of the company and produces cacao for it. I helped ferment and dry cacao, make cocoa rolls (for cocoa tea, essentially pure hot chocolate…love them), clear ground weeds in the cocoa forest, and make bread and baked goods. I also had time for great runs along the ocean and visited a new cacao processing plant, a chocolate factory, a large cacao estate, a nutmeg processing plant and other sites.
After that, I spent three weeks in the Dominican Republic, which has become a leader in the global market for organic cacao, has several well-develop cooperatives and processing operations, and has focused diligently on implementing farming and post-harvest systems to optimize cacao quality. During the first week, I stayed in Santo Domingo, in Hostal Nomadás, a small guesthouse-type lodging in the Colonial Zone owned by a local couple. This served a base to visit cacao farms, cooperatives (CONACADO and FUNDOP), post-harvest processing centers (YACAO and CONACADO), social projects funded by cooperatives and cacao buyers, and government development projects in the country’s northern and southern cacao regions, as well as CONACADO’s processing facility (liquor, butter, powder) and the IDIAF cacao research farm in the north. I also met with representatives from CONACADO, USAID’s REDDOM project, IDDI (a development agency) and Cortés (a Dominican chocolate company), and explored the city. It’s the oldest city in the Americas, which is rich with historical buildings, sites and museums, as well as vibrant music, art and culture. (Note on certifications: Both CONACADO and FUNDOP produce FairTrade, organic and Utz Certified) CONACADO also produces Rainforest Alliance and Biodynamic.)
During my second week in the DR, I stayed in Monción, located northwest of Santo Domingo and west of Santiago (two hours by bus/guagua). I stayed at Casa de las Anas, a fabulous homestay-type lodging with all meals included, and many options for day trips and other activities. It’s owned by Americans and operated by Ana Julia, a Dominican who is a wonderful cook and hostess. My purposes for this week were to develop my Spanish conversation skills and experience life in a small town. Monción is also a center for yuca growing and cassaba (bread) production. I took a day trip to Santiago and explored the vicinity through many walks through town, and daily runs and walks past cattle and cassava fields, cassava industry supply and warehouses, and a expansive lake created by a hydroelectric dam. This was a great week and I highly recommend Casa de las Anas for anyone who wants to experience real life in the Dominican Republic and engage in travel that truly benefits local communities.
In my third week, I traveled east to Hato Mayor El Rey and Los Botados (outside El Siebo) to visit more of the CONACADO cooperative’s farms and facilities, and stayed in a producer community. I began the week by visiting CONACADO’s collection/post-harvest processing center and a farm near Hato Mayor el Rey, as well as an affiliated women’s association, Esperanzas Unidas, that makes cacao jam, cacao wine, and cocoa balls for drinking chocolate (all so good!), and is beginning to make confections for sale in tourist markets. Then, I spent four days in Los Botados, a rural community with many cacao producers, staying in a cottage operated by a women’s group affiliated with CONACADO. (They also provide Dominican breakfast and dinner as an optional add-on.) The women also oversee the “Tour de Chocolate” tours that take visitors through the steps of cacao farming and processing, and I was able to join a group for part of that (including the women’s delicious cooking).
This was the perfect way to end my trip—getting to know cacao producers, talking long walks past cacao and banana/plantain farms, ranches and living simply in a stunning natural environment. The week was a great learning experience, and both relaxing and inspiring for my future work. It was also wonderful to stay in lodging and take part in activities that directly benefitted rural communities (unlike much of the tourism in the DR, unfortunately), and that were themselves supported, in part, by CONACADO’s cacao revenues. I returned to Santo Domingo for two days prior to flying out, and enjoyed a great bon voyage thanks to Abel Fernandez, CONACADO’s export manager, who invited me to lunch on the coast near Boca Chica, just east of the city.
Subsequent blogs will delve a bit more into these experiences…stay tuned.