V i v i a n  S o n g
Freelance writer
Freelance writer
Death by chocolate

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Toronto Sun and Sun Media, November, 2008

PUNTA GORDA, Belize -- Craig Sams breaks off a piece of root ginger with the lip of an overturned metal canteen and proceeds to chew on it.

Ginger cures motion sickness, Sams tells the rest of the group, all of whom have turned a shade of pea-green after an hour-long ride on unpaved, crater-pocked dirt roads to a cacao farm in southern Belize.

Sams would know. The founder and president of Green & Black's organic chocolate has been called one of Britain's "greenest" men and a pioneer in the macrobiotic, natural foods movement long before HMH -- Her Madonna Highness -- made it in vogue among the Hollywood elite.

He was also the first in the U.K. to brand a food product Fairtrade with the Maya Gold chocolate bar in 1994, the lifeblood for 200 cacao farmers in the poorest parts of Belize.

Before Sams' arrival, cacao farmers in Belize were struggling in abject poverty after their major buyer, Hershey's, pulled out and the price of cacao plummeted. Farmers were forced into debt, cacao farms left abandoned and many left home to seek work as orange pickers or sugar cane cutters.

When Green & Black's came in and offered the Toledo Cacao Growers Association a five-year rolling contract for organic cacao, chairman Justino Peck went against the advice of aid groups who warned of agricultural disaster and signed on. Fifteen years later, families such as the Bols are farming cacao like their ancient Mayan predecessors, who were the first to domesticate cacao -- sans pesticides.

Field management is key to protecting crops. When monilia, the scourge of the cacao plant strikes a crop, farmers manage the disease by simply lopping off the infected pod and pruning the tree.

The Bols are three generations of cacao farmers. Justiniano Bol Jr., the youngest, is a progressively diluted version of his father and grandfather, Reyes Bol.

The eldest Bol has a full head of silver-grey hair and bushy eyebrows which hood crinkly, kind eyes and creases of crow's feet. They speak to each other in gentle, hushed tones as Junior hacks at the unruly rainforest floor, clearing the way for his foreign guests who are traipsing clumsily through the jungle. He points proudly to the other crops they grow: Mango trees, plantains, citrus, banana and allspice.

When farmers drop off their bags of cacao at the Toledo buying centre, they get their cheques right away, an uncommon practice much appreciated by farmers who've been let down in the past. Green & Black's invested around $430,000 to help build infrastructure, such as a new buying centre farther afield at the Maya Mopan Village, so farmers don't have to spend a full day travelling on public transportation and risk damaging fragile beans. And more importantly, the Fairtrade mark means farmers are able to live beyond simply subsistence.

"People have concrete floors in houses, kids are getting a better education," Sams says. "There's a general improvement in their standard of living. It's not an extravagant quality of life but it's substantially improved because of this gold, if you like."

Forastero makes up 98% of the world's cocoa and is grown mostly in West Africa, a species Neil La Croix of Green & Black's calls bland and tasteless. Green & Black's uses Trinitario, the other 2% of cocoa beans.

"Trinitario has a very intense flavour, very strong fruity notes and some acidic notes," La Croix, supply chain head, says. "That's why cacao is used in most premium chocolates. It just gives it far more distinctive flavour."

Indeed, the Green & Black's chocolates offer a sensory experience for the tastebuds that will quickly cheapen the likes of commercial bars with its rich authenticity. But it could also be that savouring a piece of chocolate is to support farmers like the Bols, who labour to not only to provide for their families, but to continue an ancient and sacred tradition.

"Belize has a strong history of cocoa growing," La Croix says. "The Mayan farmers really do understand it."

Green & Black's is available at specialty food stores, as well as Sobey's, A&P and Shoppers Drug Mart.

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