A FINE drizzle falls over cocoa fields sheltered by ancient-looking immortelle and cedar trees on either side of the narrow, broken La Peyrouse pitch road between Gordon Village and Salvador in the misty Montserrat Hills.
This sparsely inhabited stretch of cocoa is in Gran Couva, some four miles east of the Preysal flyover.
All was silent except for the sound of the wind in the trees.
At first glance, it seems like nothing is happening here, but according to 34-year old Tranel Ghany, voted top cocoa producer by the Montserrat Cocoa Farmers’ Co-operative (MCFC), these hills are at the heart of a major cocoa revival that is taking place in this country.
While economists make urgent calls to move away from natural gas and oil—T&T’s main revenue earners that are now in decline—farmers in this and other villages of Gran Couva, are aiding in the diversification process without much fuss.
A member of MCFC’s supervisory board, Ghany took over the management of his father, Farouk Ghany’s 13-acre cocoa estate when he passed away five years ago.
His father was a senior superintendent in the T&T police service and a founding member of the MCFC.
The MCFC, located on the San Antonio Estate, began in 2010 when “five fellas sit down and decide to form a co-operative,” president, Christopher Paul said.
Today it is the most successful cocoa farmers’ co-operative in T&T with farmers from villages like Brasso, Flannagin Town, Los Attajos,Tortuga, Corosal, San Salvador and La Vega.
Paul said Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat has noted on more than one occasion that the MCFC is a model co-operative.
It has influenced the formation of other co-operatives in the local cocoa industry.
The MCFC, is producing its own chocolates and exports 95 per cent of the unique fine flavour Trinitario beans it gets from the 46 Gran Couva farmers to high end chocolatiers in Switzerland like Laderach, and in Belgium.
The co-operative produces about 50 tonnes of dried cocoa beans per year.
Not too long before the formation of the MCFC nine years ago, cocoa estates in Gran Couva were being abandoned or were in decline.
The decline came after a thriving period in the early 20th century when cocoa was king and estates dotted the Montserrat Hills.
For decades after WWI, Trinidad cocoa farmers were barely surviving, as they were forced to export their cocoa through middlemen.
Now, through the MCFC, they export their beans directly to buyers and engage in profit sharing with members.
Farmers are faring much better today. “In 2010, a farmer used to get about $4.65 per kg of wet cocoa. Now they get about $9 per kg,” Paul said.
“The amount of beans coming in from the farmers is different according to the holdings. Some have five-acre plots, some ten, 15 or 100.”
The MCFC has been able to attract younger people to the area’s cocoa industry.
Ghany, a full-time process operator at Methanex Trinidad Ltd in the Point Lisas Industrial Estate and a part-time forex trader and trainer, said he wanted to carry on the cocoa tradition that began with his great grandfather, Abdool Ghany, and continued with grandfather, Satar Ghany, and his father.
All goes back
“We use the profits from the estate to purchase sporting equipment or clothing for villagers,” Ghany said.
“Both my wife and I are working and I understand that once I’m fine, I can help other people and we can have a better community.”
A community activist in Gordon Village where he resides, and a father of one, he uses the earnings from his estate to fund youth development projects in his area.
He also provides part-time employment for some 21 young people in his village, like Jovan Nanoo and Joshua Narace.
The village is populated by about 80 families.
“They get money, I get help and we keep the estate running,” Ghany told the Business Express last week.
“This whole thing goes back into our community. For me, this is not a regular estate where you pay employees and keep the profits.”
Ghany said he sold seven acres of his father’s estate and cultivates cocoa on the other six acres.
The estate which had been in decline is only now reviving and to supplement income from the plot, he plants bananas, citrus and ground provisions like tannia.
“The young men help plant and harvest these crops.”
Ghany also plants coffee and has earned himself a niche market locally.
He said he has two main employees, a man and a woman in their 60s who spent their lives working in cocoa in the area, who also move around working on other estates.
“They cut grass, prune trees, pick cocoa and plant young trees.”
Ghany said getting full-time labour remains a problem for cocoa farmers in the area because of the wages paid to workers.
“Some get $150 a day, some get minimum wage because they don’t have to work all day on an estate.
“That’s why some workers move around to the different estates.”
He said Venezuelan migrant workers are now being employed on some cocoa estates in Gran Couva and retrenched workers are seeking jobs there now.
Ghany works four days on, four days off at Methanex and spends his off days on the estate.
He does guided tours for local and foreign tourists, schools and companies who come to watch toucans, macaws and other birds on his estate. He said deer, ocelot, porcupine and other animals inhabit the plot.
Harvesting is due to start this month with peak season being January when the estate will be busy.
“On an average, we produce about 500 kgs of wet beans and get $10 per kg.
“When the MCFA sells the chocolates and the beans they share the profits with farmers.”
Farmers faring better
Ghany said more income is being generated from the cocoa estates through the co-operative.
“The co-operative started because they wanted better prices for the farmers.
“It’s now producing its own brand of chocolates and cocoa butter which are on the local market,”
He said some farmers in the MCFC, like James Burns, have gone downstream on their own and are producing chocolates, creams and soaps right outside his home.
Burns’ chocolate, labelled, “Gran Couva” can be found in local Starbucks outlets.
San Salvador has its own chocolate, “San Salvador” which you can find in Xtra Foods, JTA Supermarket and other places.
Ghany said the high cost of equipment prevents smaller farmers from producing downstream products.
There is also a revival of the La Peyrouse Estate, which is said to have been purchased by the Duprey family from Betty Robinson.
Villagers said trees from the estate, which is estimated to have more than 100 acres, were cut down for commercial purposes and the estate was abandoned.
A tangle of vegetation was all that could be seen of this estate but the Business Express was told a caretaker was appointed to start a cocoa revival there.
“Gran Couva is poised for a good future in cocoa,” Ghany said.