Sustainably Sweet: Renewing Belize’s Tropical Forests through Cacao

Posted By: Ennovent|Dated: September 11, 2012

It is no secret that chocolate can have a powerful effect; comforting, calming or even energizing, depending on your sweet tooth.  But more than just inducing various emotional states, chocolate can also contribute to social change – and no one recognizes this more than the innovative team behind Maya Mountain Cacao, Alex Whitmore and Emily Stone.

Everything changed for Whitmore when he took his first bite of stone ground chocolate; from this first sweet, rich taste, Whitmore was so inspired that he decided to create a chocolate company. But beyond just aspiring to become the world’s next great chocolate producer, Whitmore wanted to create a company with a conscience.

To do so Whitmore started travelling the globe seeking new sources of sustainably harvested cacao. It was on this rather epic journey that Whitmore stumbled upon the lush – albeit tiny – country of Belize and its high quality cacao crops.

The reality in Belize, Whitmore learned, is that despite 44% of the country’s land is protected Belize continues to face ongoing ecological threats – especially related to tropical forests. These threats include industrialization of agricultural production through mono-crops and the discovery of crude oil in the southern region where most of the country’s cacao is grown.

Although cacao is important to satisfying a sweet craving, the crop represents a source of economic and environmental preservation potential for Belize.

As a shade crop cacao prevents deforestation while providing a cash source for cacao-farming families. Cacao is grown organically and mostly in an agro-forestry-based system, allowing for high biodiversity levels and income diversification for families.

The Maya of Belize have been producing cacao for decades, but have historically had only one market option to sell their beans; as a result, the industry has never reached a state of financial viability.

Recognizing this, and the economic potential of the cacao industry in Belize, Whitmore proposed the introduction of a competitive market for Belizean cacao to bring new services, ideas, pricing models, and meaningful relationships to local farmers.  The goal was to catalyze a renewed interest in cacao farming to help local communities earn an income, while also preserving tropical forest biodiversity.

While researching the above concept Whitmore met Emily Stone, a graduate of the Green Corps Field School for Environmental Organizing. Bonded by the concept of sustainable cacao, together they worked to find a way to establish direct relationships between chocolate companies and the cacao farmers. The goal was to build relationships so the farmers could generate an income while producing quality, sustainably sourced cacao for global consumption.

Recognizing the business potential, Stone travelled to Belize and, with the help of a young local Mayan famer, began truly laying the groundwork for Maya Mountain Cacao. She worked with farmers to get organic certification, eliminate the use of pesticides and increase overall yields. At the same time, Stone also started encouraging reforestation practices essential for the sustainable cocoa plantation. Impressively, due to outreach and their full launch, in 2011 Maya Mountain Cacao’s over 60 farmers received organic certification.

After 3 months of education, in January 2011 Maya Mountain Cacao made a direct investment in cacao production and started buying from the region’s local farmer. With a strong contingent of organically certified supplies, Maya has exported 26 metric tons organic cacao so far in the 2012 season, securing the highest possible price from the world market.

Since the company’s launch farmer income has grown an average of BZ $56.70 from the sale of cacao. For subsistence farmers this is a small, but meaningful, increase that can be used to pay for a child’s education, invest in new tools for the farm or to begin generating savings for the future.

In addition to their for-profit business, in 2011 Maya started partnering with local NGOs to invest in seedling farming for long-term reforestation. As a part of this project Maya is helping to scale the overall cacao production levels in Belize, looking beyond just their operations. Overall, the seeding project is set to yield 50,000 cacao trees to be planted in July and August.

With their impressive launch and success throughout the last year, Whitmore and Stone are now focused on drawing attention to the fact that catalyzing market access can directly contribute to protecting tropical forests.

This is why they’ve applied to the WWF Switzerland Tropical Forest Challenge – which seeks to identify the best for-profit solution impacting tropical forest biodiversity in the world’s 75 tropical forest-rich countries.  The 3 winners, in the Idea, Start up and Company categories will be endorsed by WWF Switzerland and receive global visibility and capacity building opportunities.

Maya Mountain Cacao is just one example of a for-profit business, which is, by design, creating a positive impact while generating commercial value. Now, as Whitmore and Stone focus on further growing their operations to scale their impact, Maya Mountain Cacao is well positioned to create lasting change for the communities of Belize, and the tropical forests in which they live and work.

And who knew it would all begin with that (sustainably) sweet treat – chocolate.

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  • PGWil

    way to go Emily Stone..congratulations…

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