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Published in the Toronto Sun and Sun Media papers November, 2008.
SAN JOSE VILLAGE, Belize -- Eladio Pop drinks a tonic of cacao, sugar, black pepper and hot water about four times a day.
It's the food of gods, the cacao farmer says, as he takes a big gulp of the elixir from a metal canteen, filling every cavity of his mouth, rolling it around like a fine wine before swallowing and taking another swig.
It's also, apparently, a potent aphrodisiac. Pop is a virile man at the age of 49 with 15 children between the ages of nine months and 29 years.
"This is what I've been doing all my life," he says proudly, in his bare-bones, thatch-roofed home. "I've become a big family ... it is a powerful drink."
Once upon a time, cocoa was deified and mystified, its beans traded as currency in pre-Columbian commerce before being transformed into a cheapened vessel for sugar, nuts and nougat. Its botanical name, Theobroma, translates to "food of the gods," and in Mayan culture was incarnated as Ek Chua, an intimidating god of cocoa with a large hook nose and rimmed eyes.
But Ek Chua also represented the god of conflict, which could explain why the cacao industry has been plagued by forces far darker and more sinister than any small confectionary pleasure should carry.
Unfair trading practices by "Big Chocolate" companies reduce destitute cacao farmers in Africa, for instance, into using child slaves.
Up until this year, when a certification program on cocoa labour practices was put in place, tens of thousands of children trafficked from Mali into the Ivory Coast were beaten, starved and locked in tiny dark huts to prevent them from fleeing, according to a 2001 BBC report.
Most have never tasted the end product for which they toil and angrily charge that the West eats their flesh whenever we blithely bite into a $1.25 bar.
French-Canadian reporter Guy-Andre Kieffer has been missing since 2004 and is presumed dead after he was kidnapped in the Ivory Coast, where he had been asking too many questions about murky machinations in the country's powerful cocoa industry.
CBC journalist Carol Off picked up on Kieffer's work in her book Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World's Most Seductive Sweet, and was also warned not to probe too deeply.
But in southern Belize, organic cacao farmers have empowered themselves with the formation of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, a group of about 200 producers who are sustained by one sole buyer and one powerful mark -- Fairtrade.
Green & Black's, an organic chocolate brand based in the U.K., became the first in Britain to launch a Fairtrade product with its Maya Gold chocolate bar in 1994. Farmers are paid more than three times their African counterparts at $2.30 a pound, thanks to an organic and Fairtrade premium. The cocoa grown in southern Belize is among the world's best. It is, after all, where cocoa was first domesticated.
To drink cocoa like the farmers, with a hint of allspice or pepper, is to drink cocoa at its purest. It's a rich, heady broth of authentic cocoa, its intensity evocative of a strong brew of coffee and coats the tongue in dark liquid chocolate.
Young pods are either green or red and ripen to yellow or orange respectively. Children will suck on the pulp of the seeds like candy that tastes faintly like melon, or it will ferment in a huge vat before dried to become cacao beans.
Not only has it helped sustain Pop's brood of a family, but cacao also saved him from an old evil.
"My father was an alcoholic," he says.
The healing and spiritual properties of cacao are used to celebrate weddings and fiestas today for the same reasons ancient Mayan kings drank the elixir thousands of years ago.
"Cocoa really raises the heart and mind," Pop says in reverence. "It's so powerful, that's my belief."
Number of cocoa farmers worldwide: 5 to 6 million
Cocoa trees grow within 20 degrees of the equator. Total annual cocoa production: 3 million tonnes.