Address at The Celebration Of Cocoa Excellence Awards

Feature Address By His Excellency Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona ORTT, SC President Of The Republic Of Trinidad And Tobago
At The Celebration Of Cocoa Excellence Awards
Southern Academy For The Performing Arts

Her Excellency and I are indeed delighted to host, in collaboration with the esteemed Cocoa Research Unit of University of the West Indies, this grand celebration of excellence of Trinidad and Tobago’s ‘Brown Gold’.  Recognise we must and appreciation we must give to the internationally acclaimed awardees and the cocoa industry at large for the accolades received at the International Cocoa Awards in Europe in 2015.  You all have done this Republic proud. It is indeed a great feeling when small becomes big on the world stage.  The cocoa industry is the gold mine, we are looking for, the El Dorado we seek in these trying economic times.  Her Excellency and I, registered farmers as we are, have cocoa lineage in our blood and our interest and support are neither fanciful nor specious.  Her Excellency’s grandfather, Ranjit Seetaram, once owned prime cocoa acreage in Pepper Village and Seelal Trace, Fyzabad.

I do recall when His Holiness Pope Francis invited Her Excellency and I to the Vatican, she personally helped pick cocoa pods from the family estate in Blanchisseuse, had them fermented and dried and had hard block cocoa made from these beans by a cocoapayol in Fyzabad and she gave it to Pope Francis as one of our gifts together with her recipe, the small grater, to make hot chocolate tea, telling him that our cocoa is the best in the world.  The world of the cocoapayol is nostalgic to me personally.  My great-grandfather, Pedro Sorillo was an Amerindian cocopayol from Venezuela and many of my old cocopayol grand uncles and aunts worked in the cocoa estates in Erin, Lorensotte, Carapal, Los Charros, Palo Seco, Buenos Ayres and Rancho Quemado.  And so emotionally linked to the land they were, that when the hurricane of 1933 destroyed the cocoa estates in deep south my great-grandfather became so depressed at the destruction of his cocoa estate, he simply gave up and shortly thereafter died.  I do recall whilst growing up in the country drinking hot, homemade cocoa at night.  It was a standard in our homes and I even went to Santa Flora Government Primary school that was ensconced and snuggled in a cocoa field.  I do recall my father telling me about his grand aunts and all the women smoking tobacco in their pipes before they went to pick cocoa and coffee and my father asking them why and they indicating, it was to run snakes they encountered in cocoa field.  I feel a sense of deep pride when I tell you that both Her Excellency and I over the Corpus Christi weekend with some help of course, planted some 1500 cocoa fields.

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago, has gained international repute through its participation and success at the International Cocoa Awards since the year 2009.  In 2015, Trinidad and Tobago submitted 9 cocoa bean samples to the Cocoa of Excellence Programme, 146 samples were submitted worldwide.  The top 50 were selected based on the criteria of uniqueness and excellence. Remarkably, out of the 9 submitted by this country 5 were included in the top 50 listing with 2 going on to win at the International Cocoa Awards for the Central America and Caribbean Region.  What a tremendous feat.

The history of our cocoa and coffee is a bitter sweet one.  One town, among many, exemplifies that story.  In the early 20th century, Fyzabad experienced a surreal phenomenon, a type of degenerative growth ignited by a movement from cocoa estates to oil wells and oil fields and oil grew to the detriment of cocoa.  Angelo Bissessarsingh, that amazing self-taught historian, in his recent article, Fyzabad’s About Face, spoke of the eclectic groups of races inhabiting the constituency of Fyzabad and he stated, “Gradually a mixture of ethnicities settled in the area, including a few Chinese merchants.  Cocoa was king and almost every substantial resident of Fyzabad owned Cocoa lands which covered the Dehli, Guapo Road, Oropuche Road and Avocat.”  It all changed and has now come full circle to haunt us all.  The purely agrarian character of Fyzabad radically morphed into an oil town where black gold took ascendency over brown gold and invariably the Godineau river used to ferry cocoa from the Cocoa plantations in Avocat, the old St John’s estate lost its economic relevance.  The Cocoa lands were leased over to hungry oil barons and companies becoming oil wells and oil fields never to be returned to its pristine glory.

We must not wallow in the past and today we can correct that era of blinded vision when we refused to have cocoa and oil walk hand in hand.  We have the Trinitario Cocoa, a hybrid, formed from the cross pollination from midges of the Criollo and Forestero trees is a unique blend very Trinbagonian, with a flavour that is fruity and even floral.  High quality, fine cocoa such as this, must be strategically sold on the world market to gain maximum profitability that means, some suggest low volumes at a high price to selected chocolatiers to secure a reputation and a select market for our cocoa beans.  I will however, leave strategies for the experts and the technocrats to work out what is best for maximum gains.

At this stage of our Nation’s history, cocoa production can compete aggressively with oil as premium revenue earners.  Recent statistics however, have shown that a great majority of cocoa produced locally is not harvested on time.  Perhaps, greater incentives need to be offered to farmers to encourage them to harvest the cocoa or perhaps the cocoa industry needs to be developed so that the expectation of more than adequate remuneration will be met in exchange for a unique and high quality product.

Ask any farmer for his heart’s desire and he will tell you good labour.  Labour, unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled continues to be a challenge for farmers engaged in cocoa production.  I recall reading of Kampta Persaud known for producing some of the best cocoa beans in the world in an article in a daily newspaper he stated, “Cocoa is very hard work and we have a culture that sees anything to do with working hard or working within a field as inferior.  Cocoa is in our DNA.  We have the capital, knowledge, history and the lands, but we do not have things in place to ensure that.  We as Trinidadians should be proud, as our country is famous for one of the three types of cocoa – Crillo, Forastero and Trinitario- Trinitario being a hybrid of the two.”

To solve this perennial problem effectively, Government, farmers and other stakeholders need engage in productive dialogue to force an implementable plan of action.  A possible solution may be to create a pool of unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled labourers similar to what is being done for retrenched workers in the steel industry so that cocoa and coffee farmers will have immediate access to a pool of labourers for their estates.  The Ministry of Agriculture must ensure that it continues its programme of training courses in farming and agriculture.  Both Her Excellency and I have attended and benefitted from these courses.  We need to collaborate with international connoisseurs to ensure that the training offered is in keeping with international benchmark standards and practices in agriculture and cocoa production.

The work ethic of our labour force is not the only area of concern.  In Trinidad and Tobago, productive agricultural lands have suffered from the ravages of praedial larceny and as much as praedial larceny is associated with the theft of fruits, vegetables, figs and provision, there is in fact the risk that cocoa and coffee fields can become lucrative targets for those with a thirst for brown gold.  Praedial larceny can diffuse passion and destroy the dreams of the farmer.  Not relating to cocoa, I can recall a personal anecdote by one, Dr Flyod Homer, an ecologist and peasant farmer which demonstrated the debilitating impact that Praedial larceny can have on a family’s agricultural estate. He related, “My family’s 6 acre citrus estate on the Toco Road near Sangre Grande was bulldozed last year because of the high incidence of praedial larceny that my family suffered from.”  I have to admit I was taken aback by his excellent definition of praedial larceny.  He defined praedial larcency as “thiefing with impunity!”  Yes, praedial larceny is thiefing with impunity!  He went on “I could not get one bag of oranges because of theft primarily by people in the village with whom I grew up, none of whom were willing to work on the estate.”  He continued, “The estate could not generate the income to maintain itself and after 7 years of mounting financial losses, I cleared the land.”  The benefit of course is that on that land he is now producing one of Trinbago’s finest coffee but what is to prevent that vicious cycle he spoke of from recurring and repeating itself.  In that regard, there is need to expand, equip and comprehensively train praedial larcency squads and have them deployed in all the farming districts.  I further submit that there may be a need for the creation of a special praedial larceny court to handle this disincentive to productive farming.  Such culprits need to be investigated, apprehended, charged and prosecuted successfully and expeditiously to have the desired deterrent effect.

Proper land usage and management in Trinidad and Tobago are critical if we are to use cocoa production as a means of diversifying the economy.  We have to shrug off this DWA Syndrome of ours – Diversification Without Action.  We need to move aggressively.  We recognise that agriculture must be part of that diversification trust and we must aggressively act on it.  Town and Country Planning and the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) both bear a critical responsibility in supporting this trust if that thrust in great measure is the production of the best cocoa in the world.  It can no longer be business as usual based perceptively on who you know and who knows you.  Natural water courses are being blocked or diverted, hills are being denuded and persons begin quarrying whenever and wherever they feel like.  This scenario impacts negatively on cocoa and agricultural production as in dry season through such misfeasance, there is a lack of water supply and in the rainy season flooding often results.

Further to this, Town and Country Planning in conjunction with the Ministry of Agriculture must ensure that housing schemes are not established on rich agricultural lands where cocoa and even other crops can be planted for maximum returns.  We must stop building houses on good agricultural land if we are serious about earning foreign exchange based on agriculture and specifically cocoa production. It appears to be in the short run, more economically viable, to some to simply survey land and separate into lots and sell, rather than to continue planting and harvesting cocoa beans because the feel such hard work is not commensurate with the desired remuneration.  We must aggressively protect our agricultural land.  Developing land for houses on good agricultural land simply does not make sense and does not generate hard currency.  The money generated through building on good agricultural land is static.  Agriculturally productive lands have higher, recurrent economic yields.

Do you want to hear of a money generating international agricultural model?  And we can get there.  Denmark’s agricultural sector is said to produce enough food to feed 15 million people, which is almost three times the population of Denmark.  They export the rest to Europe and the world for hard currency.  Over two-thirds of the land is used for agriculture.  The annual harvest yield in plant production varied between 160 million and 170 million crop units of which 60% are cereal crops.  Over 90% of plant production is used as animal feed primarily for pigs and cattle.

The use, overuse and misuse of insecticides, weedicides, pesticides and chemicals in cocoa and agricultural production are detrimental to eco-systems, humans and critical stakeholders in the production of Trinitario Cocoa, the pollinators, midges.  Chemicals have been used in the quest to achieve high yields at a fast rate and maximize profits from produce.  This wanton abuse and the mindset that comes with it must ceaseChemicals, whether it was fed to animals or applied through broadcasting, sprayed with boom sprayers, knapsack sprayers, mist blowers or even flooding of fields have damaged our flora and fauna , driving it so far as to near extinction.  Consider for example our local birds found in cocoa fields such as the Robin, Bullfinch, Picoplat and Shart are rarely seen feeding in our cocoa fields, grasslands and savannahs today, even butterflies are becoming scarce.  Farmers need to appreciate therefore that there is a growing market for organic based agricultural products.

Penultimately, I would like to publicly commend the University of the West Indies and the Cocoa Research Unit for the critical role it is playing in encouraging Farmers to engage in proper soil testing to maximise returns.  Soil testing is the first stage in ensuring a successful and prosperous harvest and our cocoa and coffee farmers need to ensure that this is done on their estates

Further, the Cocoa Research Centre of the University of the West Indies has an international reputation in cocoa research as well as the custodian of the International Cocoa Gene Bank (consisting of 2400 varieties of cocoa).  Its research efforts have focused on leveraging the genetic resources to find solutions to problems along the value chain.  At present, I am pleased to be informed that it is developing an International Fine Cocoa Innovation Centre to show case innovations along the entire value chain.  This will house a modern cocoa orchard showcasing innovations in cocoa production; a primary processing facility showcasing innovations in postharvest processing and quality management, a chocolate factory and incubators to support product development and a cocoa Academy.  It will provide new technologies, apprenticeship training, investment support, branding and product development support towards developing the cocoa industry.  There is also work at the University of Trinidad and Tobago on Pollination management to improve yield.   Innovations are key in giving Small Island Developing States such as ours ability to compete on the international market.

 

It is not helpful to look at what went wrong and dwell on the past but it is critical that we look ahead on how the potential of cocoa industry can be harnessed to support the diversification of the country not just financially but for the overall image and international reputation of Trinidad and Tobago.  The Cocoa Research Centre is a premier Gene Bank and one of the oldest cocoa research centres in the world.  The Trinidad Selected Hybrid Breeding programme has led to varieties with high yield that are disease resistant.  It is therefore absolutely necessary that the authorities, private sector and the Universities partner to overcome the constraints and to realise the potential of the Cocoa industry.  It is important to build a modern Cocoa industry using innovations along the entire value chain to give the maximum results we all crave for.

Ladies and gentlemen, brown gold is back!  We are here today for a genuine celebration.  I would like to first commend our cocoa farmers for keeping the faith soldiering on and our local chocolatiers for producing the best cocoa in the world.  I have read about Duane Dove who has teamed up with a colleague and established in Sweden an upscale restaurant where rum and chocolate tastings are a special feature.  They have a collection of over 200 types of aged mostly Caribbean rum.  Considering that we have the best rum and the best cocoa, our concoction made in Trinidad and Tobago can be a tourist’s dream.  I cannot forget the other local chocolatiers, to name a few, Cocobel Chocolates, Exotic Caribbean Mountain Pride, Gran Couva Fine Dark Chocolate, Gina’s Chocolate Truffles, Omarbeans Organic, Soular Chocolate and Cacique Chocolates.  Continue the dynamic entrepreneurship and soldier on. Heartfelt congratulations once more to the international awardees.

I thank you.

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