Chavez in Chuao

Populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez was in the village of Chuao recently, presenting his weekly TV and radio talk show ‘Aló Presidente’. Chavez’s comments were mostly about Venezuela’s response to the world food crisis, as reported at Chavez also talked about the problems of commercial trawling and its effects on the environment and local fishermen.

Closer to the hearts of Chuao residents and fine chocolate lovers would have been Chavez’s comments on cacao production in Chuao. According to Chavez, production in Chuao has risen from 5 tonnes in 2005 to 20 tonnes in 2007 – which must at least be partly the result of the village’s cooperation with Italian fine chocolate maker Amedei. The president then went on to suggest that Venezuela should try to process more of its beans into finished chocolate products within Venezuela rather than merely exporting the beans as part of a ‘colonial’ model of trade.

This is not a bad sentiment, and I fully support the idea of chocolate made in source countries, along the lines of the Malagasy Equitrade project, the Grenada Chocolate Company, or the new chocolate makers now developing in Ecuador. By creating finished products in a growing country, around 25% – 30% of the retail value of a bar will get back to the that country, rather than just a few percent for the price of the beans.

The Venezuelans need to be careful about who they target with this policy though. We have to hope that the President’s comments are not aimed at small artisanal producers like Amedei, who are tiny in terms of the vast scope of commercial chocolate production, but attract a lot of attention because of the reputation for quality they’ve achieved.

Producing chocolate of the standard of Amedei, Valrhona, Cluizel, etc does not come overnight. A lot of commitment, time, passion, money and appreciation of flavour is required, and these are not so easily replicated. (If they were, there would be a lot more top quality chocolate around).

Most of the top chocolatiers and chocolate makers I have met have one driving force behind their activities and it’s not the desire to make money, it’s an undying passion for chocolate. Without this, I don’t believe they would understand how to make products in the class that they do, and they are mostly not capitalists who ‘fill themselves up with wealth’, to borrow a phrase from the President.

Cacao farmers should absolutely get a decent return for their work, and the price of a chocolate bar should not include the suffering of those who labour to provide cocoa beans. The real targets in improving the cacao trade though should be the large cocoa traders and corporate chocolate makers who produce chocolate in bulk.

These large international companies or the brands that resell their chocolate are more than happy to use the label ‘Venezuela’ to sell often inferior products, for which the consumer pays a high price – most of which goes towards presentation and marketing of the products. (When you buy a bar of chocolate from one of the fine chocolate producers, up to 40% of the retail price is going towards the cost of the chocolate. In the case of commercial brands this figure is probably under 20% or less, the difference disappearing on packaging and advertising. In other words, you’re paying a lot for a fancy box and the promotion of lesser quality chocolate).

Let’s hope that Hugo Chavez sees through this market and doesn’t damage those small European companies who are trying to promote the value of Venezuelan beans and to help farmers to get the best out of their beans – and so the best price. Venezuelan cacao is riding high at the moment because of spiralling worldwide demand, but this does not mean it is invincible – as recent samples of some well known brands have shown.

In January this year the ICCO reduced Venezuela’s ‘fine or flavour’ status from 100% to 75% (see the pdf linked from this page). Venezuela has long been known as one of the best sources of cacao in the world, it won’t do this reputation any favours if it hurts it’s artisanal champions.

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