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English ex-pat farmer William Harcourt examines cacao beans on the isolated Las Marias plantation buried in the jungles of the Maya Coast. Centuries after European adventurers scoured Venezuela's jungles in a feverish quest for the riches of El dorado, modern-day explorers have come here hungering for a different treasure--chocolate. Picture taken October 23, 2001. (Kimberly White/Reuters/Kimberly White/Reuters)
English ex-pat farmer William Harcourt examines cacao beans on the isolated Las Marias plantation buried in the jungles of the Maya Coast. Centuries after European adventurers scoured Venezuela's jungles in a feverish quest for the riches of El dorado, modern-day explorers have come here hungering for a different treasure--chocolate. Picture taken October 23, 2001. (Kimberly White/Reuters/Kimberly White/Reuters)

Savour that chocolate while you can still afford it Add to ...

The Mayans in Central America and Southern Mexico pioneered cocoa into its earliest edible form, a frothy, drinkable blend of cocoa, spices and water. The laborious process - beans had to be harvested, soaked, dried, hand-ground and mixed into an elixir that was aerated by hand - gave the drink specialty status. Cocoa beans were more valued than gold; humans were sacrificed ahead of annual harvests for good luck. Even then, cocoa was a form of money growing on trees.

As the global appetite for chocolate has risen, so has West Africa's share of global production. Diseases and pests wipe out between 30 and 40 per cent of the world's cocoa crop each year, but, by continually cutting into fresh forests to plant new crops, farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana manage to consistently supply between half and two-thirds of the global supply, which hit 3.6 million tonnes last year. Of that amount, Ivory Coast pumped out 1.2 million tonnes; Ghana, which has higher quality (from richer soil) and more expensive beans, recorded 632,000 tonnes, according to the International Cocoa Organization. Unlike most global commodities, cocoa is grown entirely by smallholders on plots of three acres or less. Plots are small because producers tend to be subsistence farmers without the discretionary income to expand.

"Cocoa is not a product that can be industrialized. It's not like corn where you can plant this massive field and mow it down with a combine," said Frederick Schilling, a chocolatier who launched a niche chocolate operation in Brazil after selling his artisan start-up, Dagoba Organic Chocolate, to Hershey's Inc. for $17-million (U.S.).

Cocoa's sensitivity means it requires constant tending and pruning to produce good yields. The farmers who grow it rely on their families to help harvest and ferment the beans; machetes are their only tools. That process - which gives off the stench of rotting fruit baking in the sun - takes place after the cocoa pod is split open and beans are dug out by hand and extracted from the pod's white pulp. The beans are then spread on trays made of palm leaves and left to dry in the sun in small batches. Only after beans are perfectly fermented in small batches - the process creates flavour - are major chocolate companies interested in buying them. Undertaking this themselves would be too costly.

Without corporate pressure to industrialize, productivity on cocoa farms stays low. Farmers in Ghana produce 300 to 400 kilograms of cocoa for each hectare; some farms linked to research stations have tripled and quadrupled their output by adopting modern farming techniques, such as planting hybrid cocoa seeds bred to thrive in local growing conditions and using improved crop husbandry to control notorious diseases such as black pod and witch's broom.

"A serious outbreak could change the chocolate industry overnight," writes Orla Ryan, a former Reuters correspondent in Ghana who this month published the book Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. "There simply would not be enough cocoa in the world. ... There is no producer big enough to fill the gap in supply should the Ghanaian or the Ivorian harvest collapse."

The question is, who should pay for it? The answer, in John Mason's view, is everyone.

Plan to save cocoa

Mr. Mason has a paradoxical plan to save cocoa: cut back operations while expanding them.

To prevent further ecological damage, farmers would be paid not to farm if they are growing on land prone to pestilence, disease or soil depletion. Farms on the most fertile soils, on the other hand, would get incentives to expand.

Old trees would be replaced with young hybrids bred to grow in Ghanaian conditions; fertilizers would be used to restore balance and longevity to the soil; crop-extension agents would train farmers to become stewards of their land while coaxing maximum yields from the cocoa. Fallow lands would be restored to forests or other growth that is environmentally and economically beneficial.

"What we are proposing is to support, financially and technically, the intensification of the growing of cocoa on the ... most appropriate soils," said Mr. Mason.

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