By Esther West, Interfaith Program Representative
With a swift whip of her machete, Ana Rodriguez deftly broke open a cacao pod in her hand, revealing the inside. “Here,” she instructed me, “try some of the outside layer; it’s very sweet.” The coating covering the cacao beans that would later be fermented, dried, and processed by the small farmer co-operative CONACADO had a distinctive fruity, sweet flavor. Over the next few days, Ana, a 31 year-old small farmer and member of CONACADO, welcomed me into her lovely home, and shared her natural tour guide skills (which she uses in her side job as a tour guide) as she explained the process of farming cacao from start to finish.
The genuine enthusiasm and expertise co-op members had for everything cacao really made an impression on me during a week-long Interfaith Program delegation to CONACADO in the Dominican Republic this past May. This was evident, for example, when Jamie Gomez, a farmer and Nursery Project Manager of CONACADO, showed us around his beautiful, intricate plant nursery. Many others also generously took time out to educate our delegation and show us the inner workings of their co-operative and cacao. “Why all this enthusiasm,” you might ask. Well, let’s take a look…
CONACADO has been around since 1988, and has cooperatively developed many community resources for its over 10,300 members. CONACADO is made up of seven blocks, and these seven blocks are each made up of associations. Associations consist of the members, who are individual farmers and their families. At the association level, farmers and their families decide for themselves what they want for their respective communities. The numerous community structures they develop build stability and they work together to address challenges within their co-operative.
Consider CONACADO’s context… members of CONACADO work together to develop services, resources, and opportunities lacking in the Dominican Republic, which is the second poorest nation in the Caribbean after Haiti. As Abel Fernandez, Export Manager of CONACADO, told us, “The government does not want to make an investment when there is not a political reward… it’s very comforting for us when we can say that although the government and our cacao competition could never provide farmers with this type of service, we [the farmers] did, by working together.'”
Through organizing together and with strong leadership, CONACADO has thrived against the odds. Before CONACADO was created, three wealthy exporting families controlled the Dominican cacao market, paying low prices and offering poor quality. Individual farmers received approximately 40% of the price for their crops. Now when selling through CONACADO, they receive about 85% (the rest goes to run the organization, CONACADO). Ramon Matias Frias Gonzalez, a farmer and friend, shared how the recent drought was not as bad as it could have been for him and his family because they receive higher prices than they used to. Now, CONACADO sells an incredible 25% of the Dominican Republic’s cacao market, and has made strides in increasing the quality of cacao. Abel also told us how CONACADO became “the first in the Dominican Republic to buy from organic producers.”
Examples of CONACADO members working together to strengthen their communities include the following :
●Mogote Association:Our delegation visited Mogote, which is the oldest association of Block 2 and was formed in 1987. Within a short walking distance, we saw the community and co-op meeting house, a new water pump (where there hadn’t been a potable water source), a small store (or “colmado”), and a school supported by Fair Trade social premiums through CONACADO.
●Education: We drove by a number of schools that have been supported by social premiums. In a country where most school children attend school for only four hours a day- if at all- CONACADO’s educational structures and focus on children are significant.
● Credit Union of Block 2: Ranglis Ramirez, Manager, and Emilio de la Cruz, Business Officer of CONACADO’s six-month-old Credit Union explained to our group how from the $37 million pesos (about $1 million U.S. dollars) CONACADO gave out, the Credit Union is now lending $47 million pesos (about $1.25 million dollars)! They offer very good rates to farmer-members of CONACADO, and other members of the community. Farmers use loans for projects like preparing for upcoming harvests. Before, other banks would charge as high as 36% interest on loans, and loan sharks would often charge 10% interest monthly.
●Youth & Co-op Development: Young people leaving farming to find jobs elsewhere is a major issue throughout the world, and the situation among cacao farmers in the Dominican Republic is no exception. To lay the foundation for future generations and ensure that farming continue to be a viable option, CONACADO has created farm management and production programs for youth.
●Quality Support: CONACADO offers technical support, education, and resources for growing high-quality cacao. We visited nurseries that sell cacao seedlings to farmers for much better prices than other companies, which usually charge 30-50 pesos to the nursery’s 10 pesos. The previously mentioned Jamie Gomez even let us graft a cacao tree- so exciting!
The co-operative and Fair Trade work of CONACADO helps meet not only members’ community needs, but also create spaces for people to pursue personal interests. It seems to me that Ana is a good example of this. Her family has been farming for generations, and she lives in the home she grew up in with her mom next door. Ana has worked hard on her farm, so that she can have a nice home with an air-conditioned room, a living room to watch Mexican telenovelas after a scrumptious dinner (with a side of tamarind juice), and she recently built an additional room to her three-room house. Every Friday she goes to a university in Santo Domingo to pursue her dream of becoming a language professor. As a young woman myself, I am impressed with all she has accomplished already in her life.
CONACADO, while it has its challenges, is an example of a very successful co-operative. It continues its trajectory of strong community and economic growth with involvement from actively engaged farmer-members, focused management, investment into both community development initiatives alongside business practices that keep it growing (such as attention to quality), and figuring out how to work within their environmental and social context. Reflecting on CONACADO’s major community accomplishments, Stephanie Bosse, a delegate and now-friend who is a Catholic Relief Services Fair Trade Ambassador told me how she will no longer describe things so broadly in terms of “Fair Trade”, but rather will offer real-life examples of people we met and specific aspects of their lives. When chocolate lovers (maybe you?) enjoy a bite of chocolate from CONACADO and Equal Exchange, you can consider how your purchase has directly linked our communities in a positive way.
This is something I really get enthusiastic about, too!
For more information:
–Reaping Cocao Benefits, by delegate Judith Santiago, Media Communications Associate for United Methodist Committee on Relief.
–Harvesting Justice in the Dominican Republic, New World Outlook blogposts by delegate Rosie Polhmann.
–Delegation to CONACADO photo album, Equal Exchange Interfaith Program Facebook Page.
–El Fuego del Sol, the ecological and social tour guide group that led our delegation.