Toledo Cacao Growers' Association

A profile of a cocoa farmers' co-operative in Southern Belize

The Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association (TCGA) represents 1,088 organic cacao[1]growers in southern Belize, the poorest and most underdeveloped part of the country. Their head office is based in Punta Gorda, Toledo District.


Cocoa growing in Belize ©Zed Nelson
Struggling to work their way out of poverty, the cacao farmers of southern Belize had their hopes shattered when in 1991 the price of their crop fell to less than half its former value. Many farmers were left with little choice but to abandon their farms and go off in search of work in far off towns or on citrus plantations.

In 1991, the relationship with Green & Black's breathed a new lease of life into the villages, giving people a reason to come home and try again. This initiative was supported by Fairtrade certification in 1993. Gradually over the years as, their confidence in the market increased, farmers have been encouraged to grow more and more cacao while other villagers have decided to join in too.

Over the last 15 years, sales of their cacao on Fairtrade terms have taken these farmers beyond the subsistence level. A visible symbol of this is the improved housing in the remote farming communities. Many families can now afford the modest costs to send their children to school and when ill they can afford to pay the nominal amounts charged for government subsidised medicines and doctors’ appointments.

It hasn't all been plain sailing though:

  • Hit by Hurricane Iris in 2001, farmers lost most of their harvest and many of their houses were damaged or destroyed.
  • The income most farmers can earn from their one acre of land still leaves some families perilously near the poverty line.
  • The costs of running their organisation and transporting their cacao remain very high relative to their overall production.
  • The ongoing insecurity of having no titles for their land means farmers are anxious about investing in planting more cacao trees. 

However, even taking into consideration the particular challenges the TCGA faces, the future looks bright for the farmers. Backed by a development grant funded by Green & Black's and matched by the UK Government Department for International Development (DFID), the TCGA board of directors has renewed its efforts to encourage new planting of cacao to secure the members’ long-term future. Board members are being trained to run the organisation in a more cost effective and open way.

Background and history of the organisation

Getting started
Farmers in Toledo, the southern region of Belize, were encouraged to grow cacao in the early 1980s as part of a development project administered by Toledo Agricultural Marketing Project (TAMP VITA) and funded by the government and USAID[2]. The south was, and still is, the most underdeveloped part of the country and home to the poorest people, located in remote villages throughout the region. The people who were targeted by this project, indigenous Maya and Kechi Indians, were generally subsistence farmers. Traditionally, some of these farmers used cacao to make a hot spicy cacao drink, but they had never before grown it on a commercial basis. In the hope of progressing beyond a subsistence level, the farmers began planting cacao saplings in 1983. With the help of the TAMP VITA project they set up their own farmers’ organisation, the Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association.

It takes five years for a newly planted cacao tree to bear fruit and, in 1988, the farmers were at last rewarded with their first income. Their investment of hard work and good faith was repaid with a handsome Bze$1.25[3] for each pound of processed cacao[4] , which is certified organic by the Soil Association.

Price Crash
But in 1991, after only three harvests, the price tumbled to less than half its former value and the farmers could only get Bze$0.50 a pound[5]. At this price it wasn’t worth the time needed to pick, process and transport their produce, so most farmers left their cacao to rot on the trees. Their time would better be spent going in search of work in towns or on citrus plantations or concentrating all their efforts on growing their own food crops. The supposed ‘income generating project’ had collapsed and, with it, the hopes of the farmers.

Fighting Back
As the chairman of one of the villages involved in the project, Justino Peck felt he should do something ‘to help rescue myself and the farmers from the dire situation we faced then’. He put himself forward and was elected chairman of the TCGA.

Justino and fellow TCGA Board member Diego Bol got in touch with a Japanese company which had shown interest in buying their cacao, but they failed to secure a good price. They then remembered meeting Craig Sams, owner at the time of UK chocolate company Green & Black’s, back in 1986. Diego contacted Mr Sams to explore the possibility of selling their cacao. Once they established that he was interested they despatched a sample and started negotiations. Green & Black’s was very keen on developing an exciting new chocolate bar called Maya Gold, loosely based on a local recipe for a traditional spicy cacao drink. With Fairtrade certification in mind, Green & Black’s made a great offer including a guarantee to buy all TCGA’s cocoa for the next three years. During the negotiation process Mike Drury and Bill Yates from the UK Fairtrade Foundation came to visit the farmers and a good price was agreed during a meeting with the TCGA Board.


Now that a favourable deal had been struck, the farmers could harvest their cacao, increasing production of processed beans from 26,000lbs in 1992 to 36,000lbs in 1993. Launched in March 1994, Maya Gold became the first product in the UK to carry the FAIRTRADE Mark.

Initially, many farmers remained suspicious of this new deal as they had been let down before, but over the years they gradually came back to work on their farms. As their confidence increased new farmers too started to grow cacao and, with the backing of outside funding, more trees were planted and farmers were trained to increase their yields. It was apparent that the tree planting programmes had begun to pay off when, in 2001, TCGA despatched a record 66,000lbs of cacao to the manufacturers.

The Hurricane
Later in 2001, on 8 October, disaster stuck in the form of Hurricane Iris. It came just as the new cacao pods, their next harvest, were beginning to appear on the trees. The hurricane wiped out the entire production in some villages, leaving TCGA with only 16,000lbs of processed beans that year.

Apart from robbing hundreds of farmers of their income, Hurricane Iris also ruined their other crops and damaged or destroyed homes, community centres and village schools. The freak winds stripped the branches from trees, leaving the villages looking strangely bare. It was extremely fortunate that none of the villagers was killed. Financial support from Green & Black's, matched by a grant from DFID, and additional funds raised by the Fairtrade Foundation, were invested in rehabilitating hurricane-damaged crops, planting more than 1 million new cocoa trees. Farmers were trained in better growing methods and managerment practices have been improved.

Successful farm rehabilitation, replanting, and expanded membership have driven a steady growth in production, with a crop of almost 140,000lbs of cocoa beans harvested in 2008.

Impact of Fairtrade

TCGA farmers greatly benefit from the personal relationship they have with their buyer and from the security of their five-year rolling contract, confirmation that they remain part of that company’s long-term strategy. Licensed by Fairtrade, Green & Black’s must pay the guaranteed Fairtrade price which always covers the cost of production however low the market price goes.

TCGA chairman Justino Peck explains: ‘For the farmers, Fairtrade means the security of knowing that they will be paid a set price for their cacao. If not for the Fairtrade deal, a lot of farmers would have moved away, breaking up families and communities, to earn a living doing something else. They would have to go away to work on shrimp or citrus farms because there is no other industry here. Being able to sell a product to a definite market means we can stay.’

The minimum Fairtrade price for organic cacao is US$1,800 a tonne of processed cacao beans, the Fairtrade premium is an additional $150. Many producer groups use the premium to fund community development projects which they decide on amongst themselves. The important principle is that the money belongs to the farmers to use as they see fit. As they are so strapped for cash, the TCGA farmers have elected to pay this extra cash directly to themselves.

Peck explains, ‘Because of cacao, people are able to buy clothing, medical supplies, school books and uniforms. A lot of children didn’t go to school before but now they can. Though even now, some are still dependent on financial programmes[6].

‘Although medical care is subsidised you have to pay if you want to visit a doctor and you also have to pay for the medicine. Having cacao has enabled us to do this. Essentially, farmers were subsistence farmers before but now they can afford to pay for things that are one step beyond just surviving.’

The farmers decided to set up a small loans programme in 2005, funded by the Fairtrade premium. Interest-free loans of up to US$250 are available for farmers to invest in improving farm maintenance and increasing productivity. And in 2007 the farmers set up a small secondary school scholarship fund to cover fees, books and uniforms for children of some of their poorer members.

The product

After TCGA became certified to sell to the Fairtrade market they received support from CARD[7], a local NGO, to run a training programme to improve the fermentation methods used by the farmers. Peck explains: ‘Quality is good because of the climate and because farmers ferment and dry the beans themselves. Doing it like this is preferable to the big processing plants where it is much more difficult to get the quality just right.’

To check the quality, 20 beans are taken from every sack and cut open. 90% have to be of good fermentation quality, with the right aroma and colour, and 95% have to be free from mould which is caused by a fungus. If more than one bean is contaminated with mould the whole bag is rejected.

‘The reason the farmers work so hard on quality is a matter of personal pride and so that they can protect their market. Fermentation and drying are the last key areas in the production of cacao, so farmers are very attentive to it. If this isn't done properly their previous efforts to grow and harvest the cacao are wasted.

‘The farmers ferment and dry their cacao well because they want to keep their market. It is the only form of export that they have and they cannot afford to lose it.’

The organisation today

Management of TCGA
As part of the expansion project, TCGA has for the first time been able to take on the services of a full-time general manager in addition to the administrator who works three days a week. The two are charged with the day-to-day running of the office, organising cacao collections from members and handling TCGA administrative activities. They work in a tiny office equipped with computers, fax, telephone and internet, housed in the same building as the TCGA warehouse in Punta Gorda. As well as paying the salaries of the management team, Green & Black's also funds extension offers who give farmers advice on how to improve yields, reduce risk of disease and training on organic farming practices.

Peck has a consensual approach to his chairmanship. He realises that there is no point in leading on an issue unless the members are with you. So he canvases opinion first and carries out agreed plans with the mandate of his members. He explains: ‘This isn’t a one man show. The responsibility for important decisions is shared by the board, not just one person’.

Operational issues are discussed and decisions made by the board of directors at monthly meetings. Major issues and decisions are put to the membership at the AGM.

Current plans

Working with CARD, the TCGA is planning to encourage the planting of new crops like vanilla integrated among their cacao trees, so that farmers have a cash harvest throughout the year. The government funded organisation ORISA[8]is also working with TCGA to help identify the most damaging pests, experiment with natural pest killers, and help develop better composting techniques to increase yields. All of this is very positive and will certainly make a strong contribution to their goal of providing a decent income for all the farmers and their families. 

External factors: the land issue

The Sword of Damocles hanging over the farmers remains the land rights issue. It could affect the success of all these programmes because uncertainty about the future discourages many farmers from making the necessary investments today.

Although the indigenous Maya and Kechi have lived in the southern part of Belize for many years they do not have legal entitlement to their land. With logging concessions being granted to foreign companies over the years, the farmers fear they could wake up one morning and find the loggers encroaching on their farmland.

Peck explains: ‘Without land titles we are squatting and we have no protection against people making claims on our land. This is a real problem for the future because we have no security. Without that, what point is there in investing in a crop that won’t bear fruit for five years? With the backing of over 300 farmers we are preparing to make further representations to the government.’

In a part of the country where there are few opportunities for economic development, the TCGA represents a powerful lobby and as a result is well placed to lead the struggle to get farmers’ land rights recognised. In 2009 TCGA continued to represent their farmers in the ongoing fight against the government for legal ownership of their land.

The future

Celebrating 15 years of their partnership with Green & Black's and Fairtrade in October 2009, Justino Peck said: 'This partnership will enable more and more farmers to reap the benefits of working with Green & Black's and Fairtrade. Over the last 15 years TCGA have used the Fairtrade premium for investment in secondary education and in building capacity for our business, allowing us to increase our membership from 200 to over 1,000 farmers.' 

TCGA is growing in confidence and strength as an organisation, assets that will stand them in good stead in the future. ‘Our greatest resource is the determination of motivated farmers,’ says Peck. They have been knocked back but are now building themselves up again for a more certain future where they will be able to withstand setbacks and even plan for their eventuality.

Peck concludes: ‘My hope for the future as chairman is that TCGA becomes an independent organisation, that enough cacao is sold so that we can cover all our costs independently. That’s why we are encouraging new and existing members to rehabilitate and manage their fields better to increase and generate more revenue. The more cacao we grow, and the more members we attract, the stronger our association becomes.’

1 ] Cacao, the local word for cocoa, is a 16th century Spanish adaptation of the Nahuatl name cacauatl
[ 2 ] The United States Agency for International Development
[ 3 ] About 40p
[ 4 ] The beans are extracted from the pod then fermented and dried, ready for processing into chocolate products
[ 5 ] Less than 20p
6 ] US church NGOs pay for a number of children to attend secondary school
7 ] Community-Initiated Agriculture and Resource Management/Rural Development Project, Belize
8 ] International Regional Organisation for Health in Agriculture, Belize
August 2004, updated November 2009

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