Last week, I was lucky enough to go on a field visit to the Dominican Republic to visit Rainforest Alliance Certified cocoa farms as part of a conference organised by the Sustainable Food Lab. About 15 people were on our two-day “Learning Journey,” including Nell Newman of Newman’s Own Organics, whose organic, Rainforest Alliance certified chocolate contains cocoa produced by the farmers we visited.
Our first stop was with FUPAROCA, a foundation to assist and organise 4,500 small producers, set up and paid for by Rizek, a Dominican cocoa producer, manufacturer and exporter. FUPAROCA invited the president of the farmers’ group and 40 farmers from Newman’s Own Organics supply to meet with us and share their experiences. Then we visited a few farms and had lunch at a Rizek facility where we had hot chocolate with ginger (yum!) and dipped juicy pineapple and papaya into a chocolate fountain (really!). We were all buzzing with cocoa energy afterward.
Meeting with farmers is my favourite perk of my job. They are practical but see the bigger picture in the way that anyone who deals directly with Mother Nature day in and day out cannot avoid. Here are a few of my favourite quotes from the farmers we met:
“After certification, everything changed. The product is of the best quality and we get a good price, so we are really thankful.”
“We are proud of protecting biodiversity, life at the global level and producing a globally important product.”
“My community is happy, joyful. We see the benefit.”
According to Rizek and FUPAROCA, average farmer yields have more than doubled with the certification and the group received one million in certification premium last year (half due to Rainforest Alliance). FUPAROCA started in 2001 after a big hurricane destroyed much of the island’s cocoa production. Since they were starting almost from scratch, they decided to put in place better practices from the beginning. So, they prepared the farmers for organic production—and today the Dominican Republic is the largest source of organic cocoa worldwide. Then in 2006, they achieved Rainforest Alliance certification, followed in 2009 by UTZ, and they are now planning for Fair For Life. The doubling in yields happened between 2006 and today, so Rainforest Alliance can take some of the credit. According to FUPAROCA, the primary changes the farmers had to make in order to become Rainforest Alliance Certified were related to protection of biodiversity, wildlife inventories, tree planting and protection as well as some changes related to social issues, such as the provision of potable water and worker benefits.
While embracing all of these standards sounds like a lot of work, FUPAROCA has combined them all into a single standard, provides training for farmers on that broader standard, and is using the new standard adoption as a way to help the farmers to continue learning and improving. It’s exciting to see certification used as an extension tool to help farmers produce higher quality, planet and people healthy and productive crops!
One of our farmer visits was with Carmelo Paulino Peña in La Malena, Atabalero Abajo, San Francisco de Macorís. His farm totals 31 hectares and he has four family members as well as harvesters whom he hires locally to work on the farm. He bought the farm with funds he earned working in a meat packing factory in the U.S. We visited some of his cocoa trees most prized for their productivity and saw the shade trees that provide habitat and carbon sequestration. He said they no longer kill snakes and woodpeckers (previously a standard practice) and manage their waste and wastewater carefully. There was no rubbish on the farm—which is a marked difference from the rubbish you see everywhere on the roads and fields and in the towns.
Nell Newman told us later how pleased she was to see these farmers so proud of the changes they have made. She started Newman’s Own Organics because as a young girl she had become concerned about the plight of the birds effected by DDT (pesticide) and worked on a peregrine falcon reintroduction project as a college student. It was thrilling for her to see how the good price paid by Newman’s Own Organics and the incentive they have provided for organic and Rainforest Alliance certification has helped these famers lead better lives.
We also had representatives from Blommer Chocolate (they manufacture Newman’s Own Organic chocolate), Cliff Bar and Mars (who have committed to purchasing cocoa from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms), Sustainable Harvest, and NGOs such as Catholic Relief Services. The Sustainable Food Lab, our host, brought together representatives from business and civil society to learn from each other and tackle the challenges in the current food system. No small task, but it was an impressive group of leaders from all walks of life!