When I first made contact with the Toledo Cacao Growers Association, the Maya Indians faced abject poverty after throwing in their lot with US chocolate giant Hershey. A classic old-development paradigm: the aid workers had encouraged the growers to sign up to intensive farming and the break-up of their communal reservation land. The private land deeds were used as collateral for bank loans to buy hybrid seeds and agrichemicals. Then the aid workers left, Hershey pulled out and prices dropped from $1.75 a pound of beans to a catastrophic 55¢ a pound. The bank was readying to foreclose and confiscate farmers’ land. That’s when Josephine and I turned up, prepared to pay decently, with a five-year rolling contract and cash up-front for organic cocoa beans. I blame the ‘kukuh’. That’s what turned me and Josephine on to the beauty of Belize Maya cocoa and led to Maya Gold, the first product in the UK to be certified Fairtrade. Now I am sitting with Eladio Pop and his wife after a dinner of tortilla, spicy stew and pumpkin, and it’s kukuh time again. It’s all home-grown and homemade. After harvesting his cacao, Eladio ferments it, dries it, roasts it, winnows the husks and grinds them, then shapes the resulting paste into balls. He grates some, blending it with warm water, vanilla, ground allspice and honey or sugar to make kukuh. After several delicious calabash cups-full, we are bouncing off the walls. Later I bump into an old friend, Cirila Cho when she is picking up a cheque for her home-made chocolate bars. A new grandmother, she’s now a businesswoman in her own right, with a small-scale grinding and conching set-up. Organic cocoa is good for women. After the men bring back the pods to the village, the women ferment the beans in boxes for five days. Then they sun-dry them, turn them as needed, and bring them in if it starts to rain. Controlling these operations gives women a share in the wealth, conferring domestic and community power. The Maya-run cacao cooperative is doing well. I attend its AGM, where everyone gets a bar of ‘their’ chocolate, and hears the accountant report another profitable year. Asset-rich, the coop now has enough reserves in the bank for a disaster reserve fund (hurricanes and fire) and high school scholarships. The number of kids at secondary school has grown from 10% to over 70%, thanks to our paying fair-trade and organic prices. The Minister of Foreign Affairs is speaking now, praising the farmers. Thanks to their vision, he says, Belize, the birthplace of fair trade, is a beacon to the world. It sounds grand but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Back in 1993, British and UN aid workers strongly advised the cacao growers against signing-up to produce for Green & Black’s Maya Gold. They especially counselled against going organic, predicting disease and crop failure. However, since we were offering three times the price and a return to traditional Maya farming practices without expensive chemicals, it was a no-brainer. Nevertheless I will always be grateful to Justino Peck, the then - and just re-elected - Chairman of the association, for listening to my scheme and trusting me to deliver. I visit a three-generation farm, the Bols, Grandad Reyes, son Justiniano and grandson Justiniano Junior, where we eat ripe cacao fruit, with just the right au point balance of sweetness and acidity. We eat greedily, our sticky fingers pulling out the seeds, sucking off the pulp and spitting out the beans. This is a rare treat, a fruit that can never be commercialised – take an eco-cacao holiday in Belize and this pleasure can be yours! You can’t produce organic cocoa beans on a big plantation paying slave wages. The only way is on small family farms paying a decent price to get the commitment and care required for a high-quality product. Shoppers often agonise: organic or fair-trade? Support organic farmers and you get both.
Arrived in Punta Gorda on Thursday Nov 13 and visited cacao farmers up country, with Neil, the Green & Black's supply chain manager and Lisa, our marketing manager and 4 journalists from the US and Canada.
The cacao crop at this time of year is fairly small, but is called 'Christmas cacao' because it generates extra cash in December to pay for presents. The varieties that are being developed and for grafting from budwood are starting to have an impact on yields, which is good news and farmers are getting a lot better at pruning, so the ever-present threat of monilia (a devastating disease) is diminished.
We visited the farm of Justino Peck, who is the outgoing chairman of the Toledo Cacao Growers Association and who was also chairman in 1993 when I visited to persuade the farmers to go organic, dangling a long term contract, cash in advance and a good price. Justino bought into my offer and brought the association along, for which I am always grateful. His trees were looking good, but in need of pruning on the top growth, something that our charcoal (more later) project will address.
We then went on to Uxbenha, where recent archaeological evidence indicates that cacao use and trade predates that found at any other site, confirming that the 'botanical epicentre' of cacao, i.e where it was first domesticated, is right here in the Maya Mountains. There were a few wild citrus trees and we gathered some cooling refreshing fruit before heading off to visit Eladio Pop in San Pedro village, overlooking the Columbia river. Eladio's wife served us with tortilla, rice, chicken caldo (spicy stew) and pumpkin and we then drank his homemade kukuh out of calabash cups. He grows the cacao, ferments it, dries it, roasts it, winnows the husks and then grinds it and shapes the resulting paste into balls which keep for months. When he wants kukuh he grates off some of the balls and blends it with warm water, vanilla, ground allspice and honey or sugar. All home grown (except the sugar). It was delicious and after several calabash cups full we were bouncing off the walls and ready to move on. Eladio is a 'new man' to the extent that he cooks at the weekend to give his wife a break and takes a keen interest in culinary matters as well as the growing of organic food. Perhaps this is a good time to mention that I just got an email from Bob Bond, who keeps bees on our family woods and orchard at Fairlight, that 'our' honey won First at the National Honey Show. We and the bees are very very proud!
We bade Eladio and family goodbye and headed off for Lubantuun, where Justino and I did interviews on camera for Vivien, the Canadian journalist and we all learned about the history of the ruins. In 1987 I had written in the guest book "Get rid of these trees, they are eating into the ruins and will make them unrestoreable.' A lot of work has been done since then but the trees are growing back and some misguided government official has forbidden their removal as trees are a 'good thing.' That evening we have a convivial dinner at the Hickatee Cottages and restaurant, set in deep jungle and run by a lovely English couple, Kate and Ian. Kate is slight and delicate in appearance, but tough as nails and unmoved by any adversity, even the near failure of their electricity generation in the middle of her dinner preparation efforts.
I saw a guy barbecuing chicken for sale to passers by and inquired about where his charcoal came from. "Supaul's store just around the corner from Main Street." Supaul told me that there are charcoal makers at Boom Creek Village, a Spanish speaking community a few miles west of Punta Gorda, so plan to visit them on Monday to study their methodology.
Sunday morning: go for a long walk along the seafront up to the edge of town at Joe Taylor Creek, where there is a small landing. Walking back I sit on another wooden landing, feet dangling in the water to try to ease the itch of sandfly bites, lying back flat in the hazy sun listening to Andy Palacio and Ernest Ranglin. Oh yes. Then barefoot, trousers rolled up to the knee, walking back to town to Grace's Cafe for lunch of ginger ale, rice and stewed beans, with a double helping of lightly dressed cole slaw. Oh yes, indeed. Then I pass a house with turkeys in the back yard, only a few weeks till Christmas. I always like John Maynard Keynes' comment that turkeys, on the basis of previous evidence, think that the economy will always be growing, with everyone getting larger and fatter and with more food every day, then comes the crunch. One has jumped over the fence and I wake up its owner, who is snoozing on his porch, to warn about the break out.
On Sunday afternoon Lisel Alamilla, the executive director of the Ya'axche Conservation Trust picks me up with Bartolo Teul, her conservation officer and Elseno DuBon, a consultant who grows cacao and has helped the TCGA in the past, to have a look at their forest reserve location and to discuss how we can integrate biochar production with sustainable cacao growing, organic farming and permanent protection of the amazing biodiversity that they enjoy. There have been some pretty ugly scenes with illegal loggers crossing over from Guatemala - in their own country they'd be shot but they think they can get away with it because there's so few people in the reserve that they can take out logs without being noticed. Regular biochar harvesting activity will keep more people in the deep bush and this will provide early warning if anybody is trying to steal trees. They give me a slide show about their activities and it is clear they see cacao as a way of combining agroforestry with conservation and we discuss how best to overlay biochar production so that they can generate income for the farmers and for their great work. My late dad's friend, Dr. Adrian Wilson, is one of many generous sponsors but they are keen to become self sufficient as their reserve links to some much larger reserves that they have the opportunity to manage - of montane forest, tropical forest and riverbank land going right down to the mangroves at sea level, the Golden Stream watershed. On our way to the river crossing Bartolo laughs when I tell him that my first encounter with Golden Stream was August 1987, when it was in full flood. (They have since built a new bridge that is 10 feet higher). The old wooden bridge had 2 running boards for each vehicle wheel, set on cross boards and the river had flooded up several feet above the level of the boards. We waited through the night and by 4 am the waters had subsided enough for me to wade across the bridge bent over feeling through the stream to stay on the track of the running boards, my butt in the air and the vehicle with all our cameras and equipment (we were there to film the Deer Dance as part of a scheme to return the Crystal Skull to its home in Lubantuun) following me a few feet behind to make sure it also stayed on track. A sudden swift current tore off my plastic sandal and as we crossed the bridge I joked that I could see it stuck on a branch. Lisel suggested that when we came back on Friday with the full group that we could return by canoe down the river, meet a boat and thus see the whole flow of the landscape. Maybe I really will find my sandal. Then we could go round to John Spang and Tanya Russ' 1500 acres that are only accessible from the sea for a cup of tea and work out how to char the vast amounts of wood that were destroyed on their forest by Hurricane Iris, before it rots away completely. Not sure how you char rotten wood, I assume it gets damp. But they all liked the principle of char as carbon credit, safe household fuel and agricultural amendment, especially as some of the cacao farmers on their land are having trouble because of acid soil. There is clay everywhere, often so hard that people can't get a spade through it. They have a nursery where they raise 10,000 trees a year to give out to farmers, mostly cacao, balaam (a native variety with a white bean), mahogany, red cedar, mango and other native varieties. It's getting on for the dry season so they are anxious to get the remaining trees out of the nursery and into the ground while the wet weather lasts. Monday November 18th Go to TCGA to see if I can get a lift to Boom Creek from Alvaro Pop. Cirila Cho is waiting there to get a check for a delivery of her new chocolate bars. With a well designed wrapper and much smoother texture they are one of about 5 brands of chocolate that are aiming to capture the local market before going global. She used to make Brigadeiros, toffee like balls, now she makes a creditable dark chocolate bar. She is very smartly turned out in a beautifully embroidered white on black skirt and is very businesslike. Things are going well, she now has a proper grinding and conching set-up and is increasing sales, despite the competition. Her son is helping her in the business, Annemarie, her daughter, who used to be the TCGA compliance officer and has recently had a baby, so she's now a granny. She still winnows the roasted beans by hand, a tedious task, but having the grinder is pivotal to quality. I'm glad to see that she has progressed by leaps and bounds from her kitchen tabletop operation just a year and half ago. Meeting with Santiago Sanchez at Boom Creek Village. He makes charcoal which he supplies to Supaul's store in Punta Gorda, who then sells it to the streetside barbecue chicken vendors and to the public. Santiago's house is stacked with bags of charcoal which he has prepared earlier and is waiting to sell and we sit down for a chate. I mention that I am interested in charcoal etc and then ask him if he has every tried it mixed with soil. His face lights up, he leaps up and beckons me to his charcoal pit, about 100 yards from his house. The pit is about 10 feet long and 5 feet wide, logs on either side, charcoal in the bottom, and rich black charcoaly earth on the sides. He calls it 'black soil' and I pick up a handful, it smells very neutral, less earthy than compost but it has a lovely texture, almost edible. So far Santiago has experimented with it on his cabbages ("They have much wider heads and are much greener, lots of big green leaves") and his peppers. The soil runs dark and deep and it seems like the carbon has percolated down, or been taken by worms, to a deeper level as I scoop out some from the sides from the very bottom of his pit and it is rich and black several inches in, though this could just be burnt earth. We go back to his house where he has a rusting old pickup truck carcass that his wife uses as a nursery. There are some rather sad looking plants in black plastic 'pots' and I ask if the soil in them is char-enriched as there is a pile of black soil on the truck bed. He shakes his head and points to the anaemic looking soil in the pots and says "I tell my wife to mix it in but she don't do it." As a fellow innovator I know how hard it is to get people to take your crazy ideas seriously. I buy 4 bags full of charcoal to take back as gifts for TCGA and YCT folks and we bid him goodbye, arranging to come back on Wednesday afternoon. Pop in to see SHI (Sustainable Harvest International) director Nana Mensah who shows me their new solar poo drier and urine collector. Nana Mensah took up the biochar baton last year when I preached the gospel to him at the Cacao Fest. He sent his staffer Kenny Cal to a course in Honduras in May of this year where they learnt how to make biochar from corncobs. As corncobs are not thrown away but used as toilet paper charring is a good way to capture and sterilise otherwise pathogenic waste. As the Japanese keep urine to enrich charcoal and cool it down after processing, things are coming together. Kenny Cal now works for YCT. Then to TCGA office for a planning meeting for the next few days' guests. Neil has been summoned back to London and Lisa wonders if I can possibly go with the group and her to Maya Mopan on Wednesday...I tentatively agree. Then we go off at my suggestion, to Gomier's, whose rastafarian restaurant is the only place you can get at tofu based meal in Punta Gorda. I order a rice and vegetables with tofu/oat balls in curry, the best meal I've had all week. They have fish now, so the others don't suffer to much from lack of protein. Chat on phone with William Kendall while lunching at Gomier's about proposed management changes. Then I head back to the hotel where I bump into Terrell, the North Carolina environmental civil servant who muses about how he used to round up stray dogs as part of his job and how he could deal with the Punta Gorda lot in no time. We go off to the Sea View bar above the fish market where a drum and rap group are doing Garifuna versions of Blondie songs. I down a Belikin, we stroll over to visit Chet, there is a Rasta and a hippie on his porch but he's gone to bed and doesn't respond to my soft calling of 'Schmidtie' so we go back to the hotel and I get an early night. The toilet is oozing (clean) water so I stuff a dirty shirt around the base to delay the inevitable puddling of the bathroom floor (Tate's Hotel, in case you're interested). Before retiring I send an email to our board suggesting that Neil's return be postponed.
Tuesday November 18th
Meet the journalists at the TCGA depot where Ernestina Bol has brought in some cacao for weighing. They are slightly overfermented, an unusual problem, but still acceptable. Neil gets a phone call to say he should stay on, so I am off the hook on Lisa's trip to Maya Mopan, though I'll go there at some point. Neil explains to the journalists about pricing and Lisa is getting anxious about time, but it is important that they understand the relation between the high prices we pay, the consistency of quality supply and the benefits to all parties. You get what you pay for and the customer is the ultimate beneficiary of the principle. When the see the fair trade premium of $150 and the organic fair trade premium of $200 they are impressed, then Neil shows them the Green & Black's premium of $1000 and they begin to understand why it all makes such a big difference. He also explains that because we now buy daily and also will soon be buying in San Antonio more women bring in cacao and they use the money more wisely. He comments that in the old days the men would bring in a large amount of cacao, get a large check, cash it at the bank next door and then spend the money on drink, to which I quip "...and then squander the rest." We head off to San Antonio and visit the new buying centre. This will provide solar warmed and naturally ventilated drying for farmers, to take away the tedium of constantly needing to watch out for rain without accelerating this crucial stage in the flavour development process. A rusting old barrel oven from the San Antonio wood fired drier that dates back to the Peace Corps help in 1986 is there. It never worked properly, just made cacao that tasted like kippers. All my anxieties about driers were based on that but this is as good or better than sun drying. Then we go up to see 3 generations of Bols: Reyes Bol, his son Justiniano and his grandson Justianano Bol Jr, or 'Junior.' If there's an 80:20 rule about cacao it's that the Bol family and the Chun family supply most of our cacao. Their plantation is beautifully placed and I pick some allspice leaves for us to sniff, then we eat fresh cacao fruit, some are absolutely au point with just right balance of sweetness and acidity, everyone is greedily and with sticky fingers pulling out the seeds, sucking off the pulp and spitting the pits. I slice one lengthwise to show the deep purple of a fresh unfermented bean as all they've seen is well fermented and don't know what unfermented looks like. Then we go back to Junior's place for a lunch of caldo, rice, tortilla and what looks like potato. It is slightly sweeter, but almost a spud, so I ask what it is and am told that it's yucca. I go into the kitchen area and ask Junior's wife if she has one and she points to a huge tuber, about 8 times the size of a potato, on the floor in the corner. Wow. I pick it up and dangle it in front of Darragh and Susan, who are from Dublin "Let's see a spud this size from Oireland then" I challenge. There is a huge poinsettia outside the house that is clustered with beautiful flowers. It's always amazing to see perennials and their potential when we see them either as annuals
or just as house plants. Even more amazing to walk throught he bush with a machete, hacking away at plants that, if you were in the Kew Gardens Tropical House, would have you locked up for a 4 stretch.
Then we go off to see Luciano Cho, who has 100 year old trees that he inherited from his Dad and refuses to prune because his mother entrusted them with them and he can't bring himself to remove a single branch. They are big fat trees, thick mossy branches, not very much fruit. He has planted a lot of cacao in recent years and will be the biggest single producer within a year or two as the 5 and 6 year old trees start to bear serious amounts. He and I go off for a walk away from the group to look at his mahoganies, a few very heavily laden cacao trees, and a wild pear that is huge. He has little hot pepper plants that seem to
pop up everywhere, scorching even when green. Back with the group I ask him what schooling he had "Six years, that's why I don't speak so good." The journalists assure him that he speaks English well, but he knows they're being kind. I ask how many kids he has in high school and he says 2 at the moment, each one cost him US$500 a year in tuition, uniforms and books but he is determined that all his kids graduate and that's what inspires him to grow such good cacao and in such quantity. He's on his land at 6 a.m and knocks off at 4 p.m and is a picture of health and happiness, a man rooted in his ancestral land, though in fact most of it is of uncertain tenure, the nightmare that threatens to haunt all these farmers unless the debate over land tenure is resolved one way or the other. The Maya Council want reservation land to be protected from any alienation ever, they don't want farmers to be able to sell land to outsiders so think it should be held in common, though prior use will be respected. Some farmers want ( and a handful have) the security of private ownership, but that opens the ever-present risk that the rising number of refugees from 'civilisation' will outbid the locals when the land is sold and that gradually the distinctive Maya character of the homeland will be diluted, divided, diffused and dissipated. We drive back to Punta Gorda and regroup in the evening for dinner at Marion's Bay View. It's my last night with this group so I go off with Sue White from Sydney and we do a one to one interview. Then we all have dinner, lovely vegetarian options, I have dhal, rice and salad and rehydrate with lime juice drink. Mrs Ramclam has made a lovely filled pastry sheet with some kind of fruit nobody can identify. Turns out is the pulp left over from juicing star fruit that has been pureed and then made into baker's jam with sugar. Someone asks me about the Crystal Skull and I regale them with my stories of the Harmonic Convergence, Malcolm Electric Warrior, visiting Anna Mitchell-Hedges in Kitchener and sitting with the skull on my lap as she tells me about how Harriot Topsey came to visit her to talk about recovering the skull for Belize and how she had to pull out her .38 to keep him from just grabbing it and bolting. Tomorrow is the big Settlement Day celebration, the day the Garifuna came ashore in Belize and we expected the town to be throbbing with drums but it was quiet, people seem to be saving themselves for tomorrow.
I have breakfast with Darragh and Susan, then go with them to Beya Suites to say goodbye to the other journalists. Then I walk back into town along the seafront.
John and Jessica arrive Go to YCT office, meet Rachel Kerry, then to SHI, closed. then to Santiago Sanchez, see peppers growing in biochar, his pit, his collection area, people melting banana leaves for tamales, then to dinne
Thursday 20 Late start, gather flock and head up to San Antonio to see the new centre. Then on to Uxbenka, where we see a stela with engravings and stand on top of hill and see centres in all directions, then with Justino to San Jose for lunch, Christina, Griselda, Justino Junior, Sandra. Then to Justino's cacao, pruning with machete, weighing, argy bargy then speak to shrimp farm nephew, then back to PG, stopping for a quick look at milpa/huamil but everyone's tired and nobody's paying attention. At dinner at Emery's we have jewfish, also known as 'Goliath grouper' that is apparently getting smaller due to overfishing. It is one of the world's most delicious fish so it's going to be struggle to control the fishermen. Then we walk back to Coral House Inn, grab a beer from the self service bar fridge and relax by the pool under a starry sky, Orion just above the horizon.
Friday November 21st 2008
Rice Mill – we set off en masse to the Big Falls rice mill, where there is a mountain of rice husks rotting away. Stephen knows a thing or two about rice mills, char and the use of heat to dry rice so we leave him and Niklaos there to investigate while we carry on, with Lisel aboard, to YCT. There we are given the presentation about their lands, their work and their potential and visit their nursery. They have a ‘keystone’ estate of only 15000 acres but it holds together 150,000 acres of Columbia River Forest Reserve, 90,000 acres of the Bladen Nature Reserve, the privately owned land of the Jungle Lodge on the southwest side of Golden Stream, who encouraged them to buy the northeast side to that it never turned into cattle pasture. My Dad's good friend Dr. Adrian Wilson helped them to buy that land through the Grass Valley Trust and it now protects both sides of the river all the way to the mangrove forests at the sea. The Golden Stream is teeming with tarpon as the runoff diminishes, though some citrus plantations still cause problems. We don't meet Bartolo Teul, who is coming to Cornell, but we do meet Auxebio Sho, their agroforestry extension officer, who comes with us on our journey. We go through the nursery and learn more about the trees they are planting - they have a great stand of mahogany in their field overlooking the Maya Mountains on the horizon. Then off to try to catch up with Stephen and Niklaos. I phone the rice mill but they've gone to town so we go down a narrow track to the water's edge, bid Elliot goodbye and head off in a couple of canoes downriver. On the way Jessica sees a toucan and their boat disturbs and iguana which plops into the water just ahead of our boat. We are with Rachel Kerry, the river biologist who maps the snail and other populations of the river to measure its health and I engage her in conversation saying: "Do you ever study the gut flora of snails? I was just reading an interesting paper on seasonal changes in the gut flora of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay, as one does while waiting for East Enders to come on, and noted the way their flora reflect the seasonal availability of food." We had an enjoyable conversation as we floated down the river with Arthur and then got out at Jungle Lodge, a huge complex of cabins on a raised wooden walkway and a restaurant and airstrip. It doesn't seem awfully busy, we're the only people in a huge area for dining indoors and out, but it's a nice place and we have a good dinner overlooking the river from the verandah of the restaurant. I get some bits of bread and watch the sunfish fight over morsels down below, while our waiting motorboat captain casts endlessly for tarpon. A few yards down the river an iguana hangs precariously from the fronds of a cohune palm.
We speed downriver in 2 motor dories, and then cut through some channels in the mangrove by way of short cut, then arrive at Tanya Russ and John Spang's landing. It's getting late but we have a quick look at the 'whole pod' cacao trees. Marco is finally convinced that I know what I'm talking about and begins to understand the validity of this method of planting. Tanya is gracious in the face of an onslaught of a dozen people and I shepherd them back onto the boat and we get back to Joe Taylor Creek and disembark as the sky turns pink and grey and blue with the setting sun. We don't have time to look at the thousands of large tree blowdowns still in their forest as a result of Hurricane Iris, which hit land directly over their place - when the hurricane hit they were sad but they had 1500 acres of very tall straight trees that they could saw and sell and then replant. Then they discovered that every tree had been twisted by tight powerful cyclones within the hurricane, sort of like twisting a towel, so when they cut them the boards had huge gaps and fell apart and were useless. A couple of decades of stewardship down the drain. But we thought we might be able to char them and recoup some of the loss. I promise to update her on how best to do this - tricky as they have no road acess so any kit will have to come in to be unloaded at their rickety wooden jetty.
Dinner at Hickatee with Lisel, Marco,. Neil LaCroix joins us. Very happy with all the outcomes – the TCGA is in good heart, production is rising, the journalists are all keen as mustard to get home and write up their stories, the film crew and photographers are coming next week, he didn’t have to go back to London on Wednesday which would have been a real setback and he reiterates his gratitude to me for intervening.
Saturday November 22 2008
Up to watch sunrise with Rick, he invites me to be a sponsor of the Rotary Club’s (newly formed, he is the Chairman) plan to refurbish the park in Punta Gorda. It’s the triangular shaped space where the Cacao Fest was held last year and where the Settlement Day celebrations were this week. They are going to put in a kids’ playground, repaint the clocktower (done, by a US artist and a local guy, great evocative murals of toucans, jungle, multiethnic faces etc) and put an arbor in front of the stage, in which gazebos can be erected. It’s a nice plan and for BZ$1000 I can have my and Jo’s names engraved in a stone plaque for posterity to wonder who the hell we were.
Then Elliot turns up in the van and Arthur and Marco and I head off to San Antonio for the AGM. Elliot will come back later for John and Jessica. On the way we pass two fishermen who are on the roadside, their small dugout dory tethered along the shore, skinning a massive jewfish – it is the largest of the grouper family and must weight a good 120 lbs, worth about $1000 BZ for these guys. We ask where they are planning to sell it and they say to Emery’s and Marion’s (which is where we are planning to eat that evening). Rachel from Blue Belize, who is the world’s leading whale shark expert and a grouper lover who exhorts fishermen not to keep the 30-40 pound young fish as they are the future breeding stock, has already been notified of the catch and has seen it. We bounce along and get to San Antonio just as Neil LaCroix has finished his speech in which he assures the farmers that Green & Black’s is there for the long term and that we are endowing scholarships for farmers’ kids to go to high school (cost is BZ$500 per year to cover tuition, uniform and books). There are 400 people, farmers and wives and kids and a real festival atmosphere but also real focus and attention on the agenda. We also missed the Agriculture Minister’s speech. The San Antonio Buying Centre isn’t quite complete,
but it looks spanking new with fresh paint and roof and a big sign at the front describing it and with the names of various sponsors of its construction. Green & Black’s aren’t a sponsor but get pride of place at the bottom centre of the sign. There must be 20 buses parked up along the road that the TCGA has laid on to bring farmers from every village. 5 Hogs have been roasted and cooked up with red beans and rice to feed the farmers once the business of the AGM is completed. It started at 8 am, finishes after noon.Justino Peck then speaks, acknowledging my presence in the audience, giving the history of the TCGA in brief detail and explaining how the new buying centre here and the one in Maya Mopan will relieve farmers of the burden and cost of taking their cacao all the way to Punta Gorda to sell. The drying units mean farmers can sell wet fermented beans to the association and they will be dried, without heat, but under cover with air circulation so that they are nice and clean and even and mould-free. It’s a big step forward in rising to the challenge of increased production that has come from the tree planting of the previous 4 years. Then the Minister for Foreign Affairs speaks, taking farmers through the sad history of how Hershey got them to buy seeds that weren’t that good, then dropped the price after the aid workers went home, then how Green & Black’s came in and how they have been struggling to keep up with demand ever since. He talks about fair trade and organic and tells the farmers that they have been a beacon to the rest of the world, that fair trade began with them and that it is now worth $3 billion worldwide. They have much to be proud of, he says, and all of Belize is proud of what they have achieved. During his speech someone starts serving orange juice so lots of people are getting up and walking to the side to get a cup but the majority are listening. Then the accountant goes through the numbers: very profitable year, grants have been a help, new buying centres fully paid for, the association is asset rich and has BZ$ 460,000 in the bank. Wow! That’s $230,000 US, a lot of money by any measure for a cooperative of poor cacao farmers. He proposes more scholarships for high school kids and also a ‘Disaster Fund’ so that if a farmer is hit by hurricane, fire or other natural calamity the association can afford to help them to get back on their feet with new trees, grafting budwood etc.
Then Diego, who is Master of Ceremonies, urges the Minister to help the farmers build roads so that they can get closer to their farms without having to go up foot paths. The minister promises to consider it.
Then it is time to debate the big issues and elect the officers.
The scholarship proposals go through with total support, but one farmer proposes that, as San Antonio produces the most cacao, the scholarships should go to kids from there in preference to other villages. This is firmly slapped down by all – the scholarships will go to the brightest kids, regardless of how much their village produces, but they must be kids of cacao farmers. All agreed.
Then the issue of land tenure. There is a big debate going on where the village leadership have called on the government to recognise the ownership of the land in Toledo by the communities and for communal land ownership, based on ownership by the village but use decided on the basis of whether a farmer is actually using the land actively or not. The alternative is ‘lease land’ where a farmer leases the land and after 20 years has an option to buy it at a discounted rate. Many farmers want lease land as, with cacao, once you’ve planted trees, you want to be sure that you can pass them on to your kids and be secure in ownership. However other farmers who don’t’ grow cacao or on a smaller scale prefer the old system. This is difficult If a farmer owns land they can use it as collateral for a loan, if they can’t repay for any reason, the bank repossesses and the land can be sold to anyone, Maya or otherwise. It is the ‘alienation of native reservation land’ that so vexed the US Congress that they voted in1932 to prohibit it in all cases. By then it was too late for many reservations, including the Winnebago Sioux in Nebraska – I was born on a farm that my great grandparents bought from a trader who had carved out hunks of reservation land to repay debts for, probably, whiskey sold on credit. It was disgraceful, but the title was legal. And no going back. The Indians used to hang out on the slopes on the south side of Emerson, disgruntled and landless, begging occasionally, gradually finding barbed wire hampering their progress across their not-ancestral (they came from Wisconsin) lands. In the end, after animated debate and an organised chant of ‘lease land, lease land’ the vote is heavily in favour of lease land. As the ministry has been refusing to issue leases until the court case over communal lands is resolved, it’s a hollow victory, but farmers continue to put in applications pending resolution of the debate in the Belize Supreme Court. This whole debate is rooted in the decision in the 1990s by the Minister of Natural Resources to give a logging contract to a Taiwanese company called Atlantic Industries that mobilised a massivle local protest. I contacted the Indian law Center in Washington DC, who fight cases using funds from rich Canadian and US tribes, on behalf of their poorer cousins. I met their lawyer in Belize in 1997 and one thing led to another and a landmark decision granting communal land rights to 3 villages in the Toledo District in November 2007. Now all the villages want the same and the Maya are divided.
Then on to the election of officers. Cayetano Ico gets the mike and announces that last year he was elected to the Committee (4 elected officers, 5 appointees ) but went to the meeting and was told he had to go out, which he did. ½ hour later he was told he wasn’t on the committee and should go home. Justino Peck then explained that Cayetano had abandoned his cacao so was no longer a grower, had been nominated by a non member of the TCGA and was therefore deemed ineligible. The matter was left to smoulder.
Justino and 2 other candidates were nominated, Justino with103 bominations, the other with 12 and the last on on the day. Diego called for a show of hands but there was a call from the floor for a secret ballot as people could put up their hands twice, Then papers were handed out where, to cover the illiterate farmers, each candidate was a number : Gregorio Choco 1, Justino Peck 2, the other guy 3. The votes were cast but then there was an objection that some farmers may have cast 2 or more votes. So the voting was resumed with a long queue before a station 1 large box for votes. The votes were cast and nobody came around twice. As Maya women are easily intimidated and the earlier shouting of 'lease land' showed how mob rule can prevail, it was a good result and women were voting in large numbers where few had raised hands on the first round.
Justino won handily and everyone ate a lot of pork caldo with rice and beans.
There were a few large bottles of rum around that were looking dangerously low, the rum must have gone somewhere, so I gathered up John, Jessica, Arthur and Marco and we headed off to Lubaantun to see the ruins. Santiago Coc was in great form we had a great tour, exchanged anecdotes about Anna Mitchell Hedges, who had been there 11 years before. Jessica felt obliged to distribute her wealth equally among all the handicraft sellers who lined our way, we then drove back to San Pedro where I popped in to see Leonardo Akal, leader of the Toledo Maya Cultural Council, strong advocate and leader of the movement for communal land rights, but he was not at home and I just left my card and a note to say I was sorry I missed him. Back in Punta Gorda it had started to rain, we chilled for a few hours, then off to Marion’s Bay View where we thought we’d be eating jewfish. No such luck, nothing but snook, which was very good but we were disappointed as we’d seen the giant monster and had been looking forward all day to eating it. Cassava pudding for dessert somewhat compensated for our dismay. Early night as we had a 0645 plane to catch in the morning.
Sunday November 23, 2008
It’s 0637 and John and Jessica are still not ready to go. I go up to chivvy them along and Jessica is still getting a few things sorted. I grab a suitcase to start moving them along. Rick has already warned that Maya Island Air are sticklers for punctuality, that Tropic Air would wait but Maya go whether or not you’re there. Jessica is mad at me, in a friendly way, for rushing them and, as it turns out, we get to the airfield by 0643, which is OK, we all check in and Jessica takes farewell shots of Elliot, our wonderful driver and others. Then we fly direct to Belize City, high over the mountains and the various nature reserves, forest reserves, privated protected reserves and other wooded land that we want to slowly and sustainably turn into charcoal. We pass over a large Mennonite community, a few token trees, mostly pasture, all livestock, cows, pigs chickens. Bloody Germans, and as I am the descendant of German Lutheran farmers who share the same attitude I feel qualififed to comment. At Belize City we check our bags through to Ithaca and go up the restaurant and ‘waving gallery’ to have some breakfast. I’ve brought along one of Justino’s cacao pods that I pre-cut around the edges. Justino pulls it open along the cut lines and we all feast on the sweet beans and Marco offers some to the waitress, who, it turns out, is from Barranco and for whom cacao seeds are a known treat. She is delighted to share in our after breakfast snack. I hadn’t realise that John and Jessica hadn’t tasted cocao fruit pulp before. Justino then shows us how to eat the placenta, which is also tasty, the stringy thing that holds all the seeds in a bunch as you lift them out of the pod. I ask the waitress if she knew Andy Palacio and she says that his family lives just across the street from hers. Barranco had a few cacao growers but the soil isn’t good for cacao. The Garifuna eat yams, cassava and seafood so this isn’t a big problem for them as these crops grow well on the poor soils of Barranco. In the departure lounge the shop has a display of Green & Black's but no reference to the fact that it contains Belizean cacao, just stuffed onto a Cadbury's display rack, grabbing prime space from Dairy Milk and Bournville.
At Houston we part company with Jessica. She has been a real trouper and her presence and uninhibited female energy had leavened what would otherwise have been a bunch of men and all work and no play. We got a lot done in the past 3 days, understand things a lot better, have gotten to know each other better and we are all, John, myself, Arthur, Marco, Justino and Bartolo Teul from YCT, looking forward to the course. Niclaos knows most of it already, but he has been a mine of information, though he needs to be asked before he comes out with it. That’s fine, scientists should be on tap, not on top, as Churchill once said.
The flight to Newark is uneventful, arriving half an hour early. Then we make the connection to Ithaca, arriving at 10:20, the bags come off the carousel, except for John's and mine. We go to a desk where a woman struggles to work the computer, calls a guy out from the back who is clearly pissed off that we have interrupted his nap, who sorts it out, snaps at her and disappears into the US Air back office. Then to the Statler Hotel where they have an emergency razor/toothbrush/deodorant kit. I advise John to keep his undershirt on to avoid BO tomorrow.
Monday November 24th
We all meet for breakfast, Jerry, Teri, Craig and Richard are here, too, so we all head off to Cornell's ag school building, which looks like Treblinka, no windows, forbidding brick 10 storey edifice, for the char course. Stephen's is more complex than I'd expected for an introductory course and the audience are intimidated by all the science. John then comments "I've got a degree in physics and I don't know what he's talking about so don't worry if you don't." This relieves the anxiety. Stephen also dwells on explosions, crop failures from the wrong kind of char and other downside aspects without really extolling the positives at any point. I tell him at the break that he's scaring the pants off the Belize group and he comments in a later session that he is just trying to make people aware that there is a right way and a wrong way of doing things and this course is about the right way. We then do a workshop outlining a project plan, our group does Belize, of course and Arthur is nominated as our rapporteur. Before we report we go to a Cornell-owned farm out in the boondocks where we see a lot of woodburning stoves that are being trialled with different kinds of biofuels made from pelletised switchgrass and other biomass as well as just burning wheat grains. I hold my tongue. Then we go across to see a demonstration of a cookstove that converts biomass into a stream of gas for cooking and leaves a residue of charcoal. It isn't working and the student demonstrating it has eventually put more starter material in than actually pyrolysis material. The wind is blowing through the barn, smoke in everyone's face, snow howling down from the hills beyond, Jerry and I go into the other barn to warm up in front of burning grass pellets. Then we do the presentations and Arthur does a very clear explanation of the range of possibilities, putting the rice mill on the back burner for his talk as it is a very different project, but connects to the rest. Back at the hotel everyone is tired and we regroup at 7 for a very jolly dinner in the Statler's Tuscan style restaurant before retiring, tired little bunnies. Justino is most unwell, but I'm flagging too.
Tuesday November 25th
After 2 weeks of getting up at 4:30 or 5 each morning and being at full attention all day until nearly midnight I finally run out of steam. Really tired but soldier on as the interesting nub of the course is this morning: our chance to design a reactor. Stephen has given us designs with deliberate flaws and our task is to modify them and to improve on the design. We do a great job and John O’Donnell does our presentation but I have to leave before he’s finished as we have a conference call booked for me, Johannes, Debbie, Dan and Jerry for 2 pm. We dial through on Skype, usual echoes and poor comprehension, redial to his land line from Skype and we’re away. The strategy unfolds and Dan will be there from the 4th to the 6th. I may go on the 9th or 10th, if needed. Then I decide to go back to the hotel and lie down in a darkened room. I feel better but don’t join the crew who go out for a Thai dinner, instead eat with Stephen (who’s also reached the end of his tether physically) Niklaos and John O’D. I explain my ‘rags and famine’ approach to biochar – if we just grew biomass for one year and turned it all into char and didn’t eat food or buy new clothes we could remove 60 Gigatonnes of C, that’s 200 Gigatonnes of C02 from the atmosphere in a single year. It’s unfeasible but the calculation helps to put the scale of the task in perspective and we realise it’s not that daunting, we could do it in 10 years with a 10% reduction in food and clothing usage, 20 years with a 5% Reduction. And that’s not counting benefits from solar, wind , insulation etc. We then work out how to utilise the dead forests of British Columbia that are now dying due to a beetle that’s moving northwards in response to global warming. I’m in bed by 9 pm and sleep fitfully until 6 – the longest, if not the best, night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks.
We foregather in the hotel lobby at 7 and the cars are there to take us to Ithaca airport. Jerry comes down and some of the cars leave but no sign of John. I check at the desk and he’s on his way. Jerry and I wait in the lobby rather than sit in steaming cars in gently falling snow. Damn it’s cold here. Eventually we’re all at the airport – they have framed the famous timeline map of the history of civilisation, starting with Adam and Eve and going through to the present. John looks for the Greeks and finds them well represented, I look for Sheba and she’s not there in the time column that includes Solomon. The Arabs get short shrift, too, with the line ‘Ferdinand and Isabella rescued Spain from the Arabs in 1492”
Then onto a 15 seater Jetstream, snack trays from Wegmans, unimpressive pastries and bagels, a little tea and coffee facility, - it’s only an hour to Winchester VA. At Winchester some Homeland Security crew are playing around with empty suitcases, putting little ones inside big ones. Bartolo goes off to the toilet, comes back and his bag has disappeared. He follows the uniformed guys into the room where they’re taking the suitcases and recovers his bag. He emerges but soon a large angry guy appears shouting at him “We’re doing important work training dogs here and you shouldn’t have left your luggage unattended. Do you understand me!??” Bartolo listens to this rant patiently then responds: “But my bag wasn’t empty.” It was the obvious point – how could they have not noticed that one of the bags they were lifting was much heavier than any of the others? It reflected badly on their competence and the guy in uniform then launched into a loud, aggressive and threatening rant against Bartolo saying “When you come into this country you should look after your bags and never leave them unattended, you hear me?” At a small private airport where we are the only people and we've come off an internal flight in a plane with no toilets this isn't quite as relevant as having a fit over someone leaving a bag unattended at JFK but this guy clearly has an inflated sense of the global importance of whatever he is doing here at Winchester VA. Bartolo calmly walks away towards the door with me and this guy keep ranting “Are you walking away from me while I’m talking to you? Are you?” as he follows us out to where our cars are waiting. I should have asked if I could speak to his commanding officer but he was in full spate and the best thing was just to get away from him as soon as possible. This was a small private airport that has no security, the only luggage of the occasional private plane that lands, it’s obvious these guys should have taken more care and not blame their incompetence on the victim. Sadly, Obama being President won’t change this situation. We apologise on behalf of the USA to Bartolo for this scandalously unprofessional behaviour and head off to Josh Frye’s chicken farm at Wardensville in West Virginia. When we get there we huddle in the kitchen and eat chicken noodle soup cooked up by a real country girl in her forties called Jackie. Arthur and I chat to Josh and the subject of moonshine comes up and I quote the old line from White Lightning: “G Men, T men Revenooers too, looking for the place where he made his brew, They just kept on lookin, Poppa kept on cooking: White Lightning.” Josh laughs - it's probably as close as West Virginia gets to having a national anthem.
Then Jackie asks me if I like chocolate and I explain my particularly fondness for it. She has some moonshine filled cherries coated in chocolate back at her place and I say I have a bar of chocolate with rum soaked raisins and candied orange peel out in the car. I get one from the car and give her a bar and she promises to go and get the cherry bombs later. When everyone's arrived we go and look at the gasifier. The engineers who put it in are there and they say they can make char, but the boss says that at first when someone asked him if he could make biochar he said ‘Sure, what’s biochar?” The chicken poop is mixed with woodchips from a local tree surgeon and also the 75 or so dead birds every day, out of a 96,000 flock, that don’t make it to maturity every day. All end up as grey dust with a byproduct of a lot of heat, which heats the chicken units. There are 3, each with 32000 birds. The heat is drier than propane and this helps reduce ammonia formation and means chickens reach maturity 8% quicker, in 37 days instead of 40. Apparently KFC like these birds as the flesh is more open and cooks more quickly. Maybe that ‘s why they’re called Yum Brands.
We see the whole process and Stephen has lots of ideas for making it work better.
Then we take a peek at the chickens. The ammonia makes the eyes water, I can only look into the long shed full of 32000 birds for a few seconds before I have to withdraw, the chicks are just 2 weeks old, ready for a change of feed – they start as chicks, then growers, then finishers. The chicks and the feed are supplied by Greenfields, who also buy and slaughter the birds. The outsourced farmers get paid on a formula that compares their efficiency to each other, so they are competing to be most efficient. If things go wrong it’s the farmer’s problem, they still have to pay for the feed, chicks and bank loan to put up the unit. Jackie is blithe about the ammonia, saying she can work there all day without a mask or eye protection. I guess you can get used to most things.
She had brought back my cherries and Josh insists she puts them out for everyone to try but there are still plenty left for me to bring back.
We pile into the cars, drive to Washington Dulles, say our fond farewells and head off to Miami, San Francisco and London.