‚Cocoa loves heat and humidity’, says Reinhard Bader, agronomist and staff member at YACAO; a company in the Dominican Republic that has joined forces with the producer cooperative FUNDOPO to help organic small scale cocoa growers to sell under Fair Trade condition.

Endless beaches, the deep blue of the Caribbean and golf courses have turned tourism into the country’s most important source of income. But for anyone living away from the coast, in particular for small-scale farmers, growing cocoa plays a major role. Today FUNDOPO has more than 2,000 members; most of them own no more that two hectares of land and a simple wooden house to live in. With its forests, hills, rivers and streams the country’s interior is exceptionally beautiful. To live there has a down side, though: most small farms or ‘finkas’ are rather isolated, the nearest village with a shop, where supplies like rice, salt or soap can be bought, are on average a 20 minute walk away. The lack of infrastructure makes the transport of goods, including agricultural produce, difficult, slow and expensive. Torrential tropical rains create the climate cocoa needs to thrive, but the Dominican Republic is situated in a part of the Caribbean that is more and more often hit by tornadoes. In the cocoa growing regions most traffic runs along narrow dirt roads. Heavy rains often cause major flooding, roads and bridges are washed away.

Between December and July the large, yellow cocoa fruit can be harvested. Most farms are so remote that the farmers have to use donkeys or mules to transport the fresh cocoa to one of the 90 FUNDOPO collection points.
Electricity lines and water pipes only run along roads. Whether a house has electricity (and thereby light) and running water depends on its distance to the nearest road. Many cocoa famers and their families have to live without electricity and have to get water from public taps or even a nearby river.

For young people it is difficult to find a job in the region. In search of work many move to the bigger cities or try to migrate to the U.S.. Yet, if managed well, two to three hectares of land would be enough to feed a family of four, says Reinhard Bader. The members of the FUNDOPO cooperative have decided to use 75% of the Fair Trade premium earned through the sale of their cocoa for farmer training and for optimising production. 25% are paid out to the farmers in cash.

YACAO takes cuttings from particularly high yielding cocoa trees and supplies them to the FUNDOPO members. The farmers can use them for infilling or to rejuvenate older trees. YACAO maintains a 1.5 hectar area with 1,000 ‘mother trees’ from which cuttings are taken. Farmers graft these onto new rootstocks or onto one of the young shoots that mature trees push out at the base of the trunk. Two to three years later the young trees start fruiting and the old trunk can be cut down. Cacao trees stay productive for 40 to 50 years. The farmers have always harvested the cacao fruit but initially they didn’t take care of the trees, says Reinhard Bader. As a result the income from two hectares of land amounted to about $2,000 per year. Switching to higher yielding varieties and looking after the trees properly could double the income in just a few years. But YACAO and FUNDOPO go one step further. Some of the Fairtrade premium also goes towards a small field study which will help to decide how cacao plantations can be run as an agroforestry system: cacao trees love semi shade conditions. Orange trees, avocados and bananas, spaced correctly and planted in the right density (around 50 trees per hectare) can provide the perfect shade to sunlight ratio. And the fruit will provide an additional income. A team of six agricultural consultants works with individual farmers, organises workshops and visits to farms where the owners already run successful agroforestry systems.

YACAO guarantees to buy the cooperative’s cocoa harvest under Fairtrade conditions (the Fairtrade premium is $200 per ton of cocoa). So far avocados, oranges and bananas can only be sold locally. FUNDOPO is now running a pilot project hoping to open a market for organic avocados in bigger cities. However, supermarkets demand high volumes of produce, a steady supply and consistent quality – conditions the farmers cannott fulfil, at least not yet. Several organic shops do already stock FUNDOPO avocados. And the potential is huge: at present the Dominican Republic imports organic fruit from the US instead of relying on local produce.

The FUNDOPO cacao farmers have used the Fairtrade premium to improve their income situation. A farmer who can now make $4,000 from his land rather than $2,000, might soon be able to buy a mule (mules are more popular than horses and therefore more expensive: mules can carry heavier loads and allegedly are far more intelligent). Investing into a motorcycle opens further income possibilities: When there is nothing to do in the agroforestry system, it can pay off to wait at one of the stops for the many overland busses, disembarking customers may want a lift to their final destination – and pay for it. A part of the Fairtrade premium is used for non-agricultural projects: for many cocoa farmers getting connected to the grid and the availability of clean drinking water are at the top of their wish list.