17 Dec 2020

An uncertain future for Latin American cocoa farmers

Basilio Almonte

Latin America was one of the regions hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with more than 8.8 million cases and more than 325,000 deaths by mid-September. The ageing population in many rural areas, combined with restrictions on movement and shipping, made life especially hard for many low-income farmers and workers. But, says Basilio Almonte, Cocoa Coordinator at the Latin American and Caribbean Coordinator of Small Producers and Fairtrade Workers (CLAC), without Fairtrade support it would have been a lot worse.

“The pandemic caused a substantial increase in production costs, especially transport and labour. At the same time the cost of basic essentials has gone up,” says Basilio. “On the plus side, the whole Fairtrade system is committed to help - for example, buyers have honoured their contracts to buy on Fairtrade terms, which gives producers some degree of security. We have also had a huge amount of support from the Fairtrade Cocoa Network, from FLOCERT, from Fairtrade International, the Producer Networks (PNs) and the National Fairtrade Organisations. In a way, the crisis has brought the producers and the rest of the Fairtrade system closer together.”

“As well as the obvious health risks - especially for older people - the pandemic has had a direct impact on the way we work,” says Basilio. “Social distancing and transport restrictions meant many farm labourers could not come to work. At the beginning it was also hard to export products because many ports were closed. And although there has been a rise in the price of cocoa on world markets, that increase has been cancelled out by the additional costs of production caused by the crisis.”

“CLAC works with producers every day, helping them maintain their certification and strengthen their organisations. We are also the channel for information and resources - for example the health and safety guidelines which Fairtrade International produced early in the pandemic. We’ve guided them through the process of applying to the Relief and Resilience Funds and distributed grants as quickly as we could to those in most need. And we have been very active bringing the stories of the producers - both positive and negative - to wider audiences so commercial partners and consumers all over the world know exactly how they have been coping. Many producers have told us how much they value this connection, bringing the co-ops, the Fairtrade system, businesses and consumers closer together.

The Fairtrade Relief and Resilience Funds - which by the beginning of November had attracted more than €15 million in government and commercial donations - have been a lifeline for many small-scale farmers, says Basilio. “Of course, there are always more co-ops in need than there are funds,” he says. “However, when you hear some of the testimonies from co-ops which have benefited from grants, you can really see how the money has helped.

“In some cases it has enabled them to continue working and marketing their cocoa. For others, it meant they could buy biosafety equipment to prevent the virus spreading, to allow members to move around, buy food, go to collection centres and transport their produce safely. Some members used the money to pay their organic and Fairtrade certification fees, to pay funeral expenses when a family member died, or to buy medicines. Altogether, we have helped 400-500 organisations to survive.”

“In Latin America, the pandemic is not over and we are still in an economic crisis,” concludes Basilio. “We cannot ease up now, Fairtrade must use all its influence to channel not only financial support but also strategies, tools and technology to help producers through the continuing crisis. And we need to make sure buyers continue to commit. The pandemic has directly and very negatively affected the lives of each and every farmer out there in the field producing food.”