The MasterBlog: In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness
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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness

In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness

July 29, 2009

A painting of cacao pods in Puerto Colombia, Venezuela.
Photo: Meridith Kohut for The New York Times

Chocolate manufacturers and cacao growers are trying to revive the industry in the face of challenges such as crop plagues and plantation seizures. "We could be a world leader with cacao, what beef is for Argentina or rice for Thailand," said Jorge Redmond, the chief executive of Chocolates El Rey. "Instead, we're faced with 52 different permits to export a container of our product."

HENRI PITTIER NATIONAL PARK, Venezuela — Kai Rosenberg acknowledges that he might be a little insane. He owns a cacao plantation in this swath of untamed cloud forest in northern Venezuela, where ocelots dart under towering saman trees and howler monkeys shriek at visitors.

So far this decade, squatters have tried to wrest control of his land, a fungus nearly wiped out his entire crop, government inspectors have solicited bribes and export officials have given him countless headaches with demands for a barrage of permits.

Even worse, intruders armed with machine guns broke into his house one night. In the struggle that ensued, he said, one shot him in the throat. Evacuated by helicopter, he recovered after six operations. But he went back to growing the Venezuelan cacao bean, the raw ingredient for chocolate coveted in Europe and the United States.

“Maybe I’m actually more than a little insane, but that’s a job requirement for working in cacao,” said Mr. Rosenberg, a German Jew who was born in Hamburg in 1940 and moved to Venezuela at age 18.

Venezuela produces about the same amount of cacao as it did three centuries ago: 15,000 tons a year, less than 1 percent of global cacao output. But that amount stirs the passions of critics and devotees, turning a luxury crop destined for foreigners into a contentious, and sometimes violent, political issue.

Cacao from here is so desirable that European chocolate makers sometimes engage in cut-throat competition to gain access to it. Chocolatiers talk of the unique factors here on the Caribbean’s edge in a way that resembles the goût de terroir, or taste of the earth, crucial to fine wines.

“Venezuela is in a league of its own,” said Gary Guittard, a California chocolate maker who buys Venezuelan cacao. “It takes years to develop the uniqueness of the best cacao, maybe 20 or 30 years, maybe 100, so other nations need to catch up.”

Viewed as a treasure abroad, cacao is seen differently by many Venezuelans, from the president to the poor. A loophole for this nature reserve allows cacao haciendas to dot the forest, near villages populated by descendants of African slaves and near poor migrants who live in squatter villages in the park.

In a visit here last year, President Hugo Chávez asked why chocolate made from Venezuelan cacao could fetch high sums in Europe, singling out a Briton who owns a plantation in this jungle, William Harcourt-Cooze, for particularly harsh treatment.

“This gentleman is getting rich while the workers are living in poverty,” Mr. Chávez said after listening to residents’ complaints about Mr. Harcourt-Cooze’s farm.

Then came the nightmare feared by every cacao grower: government inspections into labor or land violations. “There was an official investigation, I’ve been vindicated, it was totally unfounded the remarks that were made,” Mr. Harcourt-Cooze said from Britain.

Others are not so lucky. Despite partnering with the government in a cacao venture in Barinas, Mr. Chávez’s home state, Chocolates El Rey, a leading company in Venezuela’s gourmet chocolate industry, was powerless to stop squatters who invaded the farm earlier this decade and still occupy it.

“We could be a world leader with cacao, what beef is for Argentina or rice for Thailand,” said Jorge Redmond, Chocolates El Rey’s chief executive, reflecting on the industry’s upheaval. “Instead we’re faced with 52 different permits to export a container of our product, compared with four steps to export when Chávez came to power.”

Still, growers go on with their business. Mr. Redmond works from a headquarters resembling a bunker in an industrial part of Caracas. Mr. Rosenberg, the immigrant from Hamburg, enjoys unusually warm relations with the government, with which he manages a venture in another cacao region, and travels with an escort of soldiers to visit his operations.

With its reliance on cheap labor, the industry seems hard-wired for conflict, though chaos afflicts some cacao areas are more than others.Barlovento, near here, is plagued by thievery of cacao pods, score-settling murders and the torching of storage facilities.

Built with slave labor, the industry here became the mainstay of Venezuela’s colonial economy. For centuries, the nation was the world’s top producer. European monarchs sipped concoctions made from Venezuelan cacao.

Then, in the 20th century, there was oil. Dictators came and went. Venezuela, despite its vast fertile lands, became a net food importer. The legendary strongman Juan Vicente Gómez seized cacao plantations in this forest and made them part of his personal empire.

Bureaucrats later assembled a monopoly over the industry, eroding incentives to produce high-quality cacao. Yields plunged. Still, cacao cultivation survived, attracting growers obsessive enough to weather policies bedeviling exports of anything but petroleum.

Venezuela is widely known as a difficult place to do business. But the peculiar resilience of the conflict-ridden cacao trade is evident from a ride on a fisherman’s skiff to Chuao, an isolated forest village founded in the 16th century that knows a thing or two about the cycles of Venezuelan history.

Chuao’s cacao hacienda was first expropriated from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1820s by Simón Bolívar, the region’s liberation hero, and given to a university. Then one dictator seized it, then another and so on, until a civilian government handed control to a worker cooperative a few decades ago.

Since then, its yields have languished, even though the cooperative employs perhaps triple the number it would if it were owned by a private company. The members of the cooperative are poorly paid, earning about $3 a day. One sun-drenched day in July, some members sprawled in the shade near the church patio where cacao has been dried for centuries, taking a nap.

But those same workers produce what some consider the world’s best cacao. The key, agronomists contend, lies in their adherence to methods used for generations.

One cooperative member, Clemencia Bacalao, 49, smiled into the sun when asked what Chuao would be like decades from now when the oil age finally dims in Venezuela. “We’ll be doing what we’ve always done,” she said. “We’ll be relying on cacao for our survival.”

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company

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