They’re everywhere on chocolate bars, the little logos that say the product is Fair Trade, Organic, Max Havelaar Fair Trade, USDA Organic… And with good reason, let’s not forget that for decades the big chocolate companies closed their eyes on the appalling working conditions in Ivory Coast, the world’s largest cocoa producer.
One of the reasons that pushed us at Marou to develop chocolate making in Vietnam is the realization that while things may not be perfect here, at least Vietnam is a country that has an outstanding track record in terms of sharing the wealth among its still largely rural population.
Up to a point, the success story of the Vietnamese economy in the past 20 years is based on a dynamic agricultural base with small farmers being helped and encouraged to successfully develop new crops (coffee, cashew, and of course cocoa in more recent years).
This development has not been without its problems: loss of wildlife habitat, deforestation, soil erosion, depletion of underground water resources… But the small family farm model is on the whole less detrimental to the environment than the industrial plantation model and because people are exposed to the consequences of their actions one acre at a time they also make farmers more aware of their environmental responsibilities.
Because cacao trees like to grow in the shade of larger trees forming a canopy overhead, cacao is ideally suited to growing in areas of reforestation, where biodiversity can be restored, this makes planting cacao more environmentally friendly than similar cash crops that require the clearing of forest.
Unfortunately the small size of farms here makes the case for going organic quite difficult. Given the cost of organic certification it is a huge leap into the unknown for farmers in Vietnam who have to undergo a 3 year transition period and the sickening idea that should aphids invade their trees they would not be able to spray them to protect their harvest. Local farms average less than 1 hectare of cocoa per farm. The only Organic transition project in progress has its (very large) bill paid by a foreign aid agency. We are obviously grateful for what this agency is doing, but once they’re done with the project, will the farmers have the capacity to perpetuate the scheme?
At the end of the day certification is by definition a bureaucratic exercise: a/ set norms, b/put in place standards to verify the norms are being upheld, c/ be able to bury any query under a ton of paper… When you’re dealing with a family on a farm that is just a couple acres, has a few hundred cocoa trees, some other marketable crops, a pond for raising fish, a pig or two and some chickens running around the vegetable patch, the whole thing seems a bit absurd.
So here we are, in Vietnam our chocolate has no fancy Fair Trade or Organic logos to show. But on the other hand it is made by people with a real interest in protecting biodiversity and ensuring that farming families can make a decent living out of their work.
On this point I must point out that we buy cacao beans that are fermented and dried by the farmers themselves. This delicate post-harvest work is an important part of the added value from simply growing cocoa trees to being able to sell a high quality bean that is worth more than the bulk market price.
At the end of the day, we know the farmers who sell us cocoa by their first name, we pay them a premium reflecting the extra care given to the post-harvest processing and when we finish weighing the bags, the money goes directly in their pocket with no intermediaries to pay; we are happy to call such trade fair.