There are many reasons why I have started off this series of cocoa growing countries with a look at Belize. The primary reason is that some state that modern-day Belize is the birthplace of Theobroma Cacao. But, to pin the origin of an ancient species to a geographic area only formally created in 1973, albeit the territory having been created in 1963, is naive at best and wilfully misleading at worst. Often these labels are created by marketing folk wishing to shift more product. Below you'll find out why this assessment is harsh and the nation deserves a great deal of respect and support.
Can Belize Claim to be the Origin of Cacao?
For the purpose of simplicity let us state and agree with Allen M. Young that T. cacao is a very ancient species which can be traced back at least ten or fifteen thousand years to the Amazonian Basin, whilst the genus Theobroma may go back as far as a few million years. How cocoa got to Belize is another interesting aspect. Young postulates that T. cacao may have been a human construct with the crossing of T. pentagona and T. leiocarpa shortly after humans arrived on the continent. This in itself shows the early interaction between the genus and how the species became to be so important in human society - not least that of the former peoples of modern-day Belize.
Whether the ancient Criollo and Forastero subspecies evolved separately is another debate - not least because some of the Criollo described as 'wild' in Central America were, according to J C Motamayor, A M Risterucci, P A Lopez, C F Ortiz, A Moreno and C Lanaud closely related to 'Ancient Criollo' found in South America. Those on the other side of the debate believe that the Amazon basin is the genetic base of T. cacao and that the species evolved overtime as it was used in an economic sense as 'money', in a societal sense as its use with rituals (and the belief that it aided sexual performance), and finally in a culinary sense as a foodstuff. All three of these forces combined to move cacao along the trade routes up the eastern and western coasts of South America, into Central America and into Belize. Local environmental, economic and cultural forces then played their part to make ancient cacao more prevalent in some areas whilst hybridised (both natural and forced) varieties took hold in other parts of the region.
It can be seen that the earliest evidence that T. cacao existed in Belize came from the unearthing of ceramic drinking vessels in northern Belize at around 600 BC. One would assume that when this particular chocolatl was made, wasn't actually the first time it was produced and hence it could have been processed in this form for many hundreds, or thousands of years before. Furthermore, we do not know when T. cacao actually take foothold in the area, at least we do know when Criollo became part of Mayan society.
Many chocolate makers, and commentators alike, love to simplify the term 'cacao' just as much as they do with ‘chocolate’. Reviewers, retailers and others that should know better pin flavours profile on an 'origin' and, even worse, state that NO strain of cacao exists in that country. My view is that unless we digest all of the available information, including great works such as this, then all we do is further origon stereotypes. Safe to say, that 'original' T. cacao strain 'Criollo' has been found in Belize, and interestingly Trognitz B, Scheldeman X, Hansel-Hohl K, Kuant A, Grebe H, et al. (2011) (pdf) found 11 distinctive genotypes that belonged to 'Criollo' in their Belizean samples and only four from a sample of 44 farms in Waslala in neighbouring Nicaragua, whilst as C-spot notes, a fair amount of chocolate made from hybrid cacao is made – whether it is labelled as such is another debate.
Maricel E. Presilla comments that much of the ancient Criollo found across Central and Southern America has 'suffered from disease and neglect for close to two hundred years' (pg. 46). There are a few pockets left in Chiapas State (Mexico), Chinandega (Nicaragua) and the coastal valleys of Venezuela and the ancient 'wild' Criollo in Belize.
So it can be seen that Belize is unlikely to be the true birthplace of cacao, but it may be the last refuge of some of the world's most ancient, fine flavour cacao that isn’t revered nor has the dollar support as Venezuela does. To many Venezuela is the modern-day 'home' of Criollo. Brazil may be the true home of cacao but because of its troubled history with disease and its lack of 'marketing' it is immaterial whether or not it is the birthplace of cacao, what matters no is where the home of fine flavour cacao. Until Belize is able to foster its ancient Criollo, it will lose out to the much more popular and organised growers in Venezuela and the chocolate makers that have purchase farms in the country.
What about today?
Skipping forward 2,500 years to today and from fine flavour cacao to Hershey's - as far a jump in the chocolate world as you're ever likely to see.
Hershey's trumpeted their involvement and great investment in Belizean cacao. They played heavily on the 'collaborative model for third world development' (pdf) only to jump ship sixteen years after they began investing in the country - it has been said, because the cocoa prices began to fall.
Hershey's saw Belize as an opportunity to guarantee supply at a reasonable cost. They, rightly, began to step up production and make it more efficient. K Steinberg states, however, that Hershey's involvement in the region led to great tensions with some wanting to 'modernise' whilst others wishing to keep to more traditional approaches to cocoa production. Local cocoa growers were split.
After Hershey's pulled out in 1993, C-Spot reports, the void was filled with Green & Blacks who allegedly paid three times the market rate to The Toledo Cacao Growers' Association and was given the Booker Tate Award for Small Business in 1994 as a result. This series of events can be seen as a major factor in the drive for Fairtrade chocolate in this country - probably mistakenly given alternative, but less widespread systems exist.
The Green & Blacks Maya Gold is still their most popular chocolate bar, but it is interesting to see how things have come full circle. Belize was let down by Hershey's, it was 'rescued' by Green & Blacks - a company striving for economic and social good in deprived/troubled communities. It was rescued by Green & Blacks. In turn that company was sold to Cadbury Schweppes which had less than a glowing reputation at the time in terms of ethics. Then that company was then sold to Kraft foods in 2010, which, may have an even worse reputation for ethics and consumer health.
The irony is that today, cacao farmers in Belize are today largely dependent on a financial relationship with a disrespected company which saw fit to change its name from the Kraft brand to Mondelez International – perhaps to disassociate itself from that reputation?.
Today ancient Criollo cacao, to some degree, and local cacao to a great degree, is dependent on multinational companies selling chocolate that does the natural history of the country and the reputation of the cacao Belizean farmers grow no favours.
It can't all be that bad, can it?
No, despite big business having a firm grip on the country, small companies are trying to do great things with natural heritage. I've tried to acquire chocolate from Cotton Tree, with no luck - they're so small they haven't yet established international trade operations. There are also Goss Chocolate and the Belize Chocolate Company making chocolate locally which, one would hope, produce wonderful chocolate. You've also got great companies such as Dick Taylor and Mast Brothers making chocolate with fine quality cocoa from Belize. And also there’s IXCACAO Maya Belizean Chocolate (Cyrila's), which by all accounts makes wonderful chocolate.
In Essence What are you Saying?
* Belize isn't the origin of cocoa, but it does have a small scattering of ancient Criollo trees.
* The local cocoa growers have been built up and made to grow cocoa for the mass-market. They were let down by Hershey's, supported by Green & Blacks, but now they're trying hard to get a sustainable fine-flavour chocolate market going with a handful of small chocolate makers striking out on their own.
Finally: we should be giving these guys our support. We should be trying to get them into wherever you are reading this. You should be harassing those makers into growing capacity without reducing quality. They should be helped to become self-reliant and commercial, whilst ensuring the longevity of their fine flavour cacao.
We should give them a reason to keep fighting the uphill struggle against the multinational ‘chocolate’ makers.
Images © Renée Johnson (Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic)