The Miracle of Producing the World’s Best Cocoa

Venezuelan cacao is highly appreciated globally, but the exports remain scarce due to land insecurity, administrative barriers and now genetic competition

Cacao 1

Photo: Sofía Jaimes Barreto

Paria is a huge cocoa bean plantation divided into smaller hectares, chocolatier Jesús Méndez “Churri” says. If we could see the roots of the cocoa trees in the peninsula, they would be entangled with the rest in Venezuela. “There isn’t one piece of this land that isn’t blessed by cocoa,” says chocolatier María Fernanda Di Giacobbe. But that blessing has been wasted.

Around the year 1800, Venezuela was the largest cocoa producer in the world, with almost 20,000 tonnes per year. By the mid-20th century, production had decreased to 10,000 tonnes. Now, it’s a whole different story. In 2021, among the ten largest producers, Ivory Coast is in first place with 2,200,000 tonnes per year and Dominican Republic closes the top ten with 77,681 tonnes. Ecuador is in fifth place (327,903 tonnes); Brazil is in seventh (269,731 tonnes); and Peru in ninth (160,289 tonnes).

Venezuela isn’t on the list, because there are no official numbers on the domestic market or exports. But if it did, it would be far from the top ten, because the yearly production is between 15,000 and 20,000 tonnes, according to what experts estimate based on the amount of cocoa processed and marketed among the largest companies in the country.

Businessman Douglas Dager explains, “Venezuela produces 0.04% of the world’s cocoa. It’s shameful, it’s better to not say it at all. It would be best to just say that we have the best genetic potential and leave it at that.” 

In other words, Venezuela’s number one agricultural asset, the one that for a very long time boosted the economy and even served to pay off our foreign debt one century ago, is now a distant myth.

Professor Iraima Chacón recalls when Corpozulia (the development agency of Zulia) used to welcome chocolate traders visiting from around the world, as soon as they landed south of Lake Maracaibo they thought that under the plantain crops they saw, there was abundant porcelain cocoa, the delicate variety of the region. In reality, Chacón remembers, the porcelana was found in three or four farms, and in sparse trees in some backyards. “The thing is,” says chocolatier Naudys González, “that the cocoa bean producer’s mentality seems to still have a small farmer’s mindset. Most of them don’t see it as a business, as a source of profit.” In Sucre, producer and researcher Calixto López admits that “producers can’t just be harvesters, they need the knowledge on which types of cocoa they have. Very few of us do the job the way it’s supposed to be done.”

The fact that production is so low means that marketing Venezuelan cocoa abroad is an almost impossible feat. Di Giacobbe mentions two of the major hurdles. The first one is the shortage in production itself: “There’s an excellent cocoa bean in Macuare (Miranda) and there’s no one there to take it out, because I understand that when you’re an exporter, you need tonnes to fill the containers. So, if the producer only has six wonderful bags, they’re not going into the container. So, it’s very difficult for this cocoa to go abroad.”

The second one is a lack of information: “If you send an email to Ingemann Fine Cocoa in Nicaragua, in less than twenty-four hours you have all the answers you need: the aromatic wheel, pricing, price for shipping, how long it takes to reach its destination, the permits. If you send an email to a company that exports Venezuelan cocoa from Venezuela, if you do get hold of it, they answer several days later saying: hang on, I don’t have that amount, I don’t have all the permits, I don’t know if I can ship it to you, I don’t know how long it will take to reach its destination.”

They say that Venezuelan cocoa has been sent to Europe and that it had to be incinerated because it was rotten when it arrived; that an exporter sent an excellent two-kilo sample and that after the sale was closed, he sent three tonnes of which about nine hundred kilos had to be thrown out; that cocoa arrived late and wet; that Japan has made two product returns and that there’s more “Chuao cocoa” in Europe than what Chuao actually produces…

None of this could be corroborated by Caracas Chronicles. But we do know that exports from Venezuela, as low as they may be, are key for the domestic market, which goes kind of like this: when harvesting begins, exporters have the right to buy first, while the domestic industry waits. The reason is that exporters signed a contract abroad to deliver a certain amount of cocoa to avoid fines, so they’re willing to pay extra to the farmer. Once these export sales are finalized, the price goes down, and that’s when the domestic industry makes its purchases, depending on supply and demand.

Cocoa is also considered a commodity, just like oil or iron, therefore subject to the impact of global events. Rodrigo Morales, from Carabobo, says that when the pandemic hit and after that the war in Ukraine, the demand from European chocolate manufacturers declined, and therefore, the purchases of fermented cocoa in producing countries, so the buyers for Venezuelan cocoa became scarcer and the international price of cocoa went down. “Right now, it’s not a priority for Europe to make chocolate.”

Too Risky

It isn’t less complicated inside our borders. It’s never been, not even in our most recent economic history. The Fondo Nacional del Café y del Cacao, created in 1959 and relaunched in 1975 as Fondo Nacional del Cacao, created a State monopoly in terms of purchasing, distribution, and exports. By establishing a base price, which in practice meant that all cocoa would be worth the same, whether it was the fresh pulp or fermented, all incentives to produce cocoa in larger quantities and high quality fell.

This state policy that goes against cocoa quality adds to many other threats against formal economic activity in Venezuela. According to Dager, “there are foreign investors who would love to buy a piece of land here to develop cocoa for their brands, but they don’t because they know that  can be confiscated for no reason.” 

And there’s the violence in the farming areas. In 2013, Barlovento was declared a “Peace Zone” to demobilize criminal gangs which would fight over lands and profits from cocoa. But that did not turn out well. In 2020, Diego Gil, owner of Cacaos Caracas, and Germán González, director of operations of said company, disappeared in the region. Germán González Monagas says:

“Diego and my father left and never came back. No one ever contacted us. They never asked for ransom. It was like they were swallowed by the earth… There weren’t any major searches by the police or rescue activities. The investigation is ongoing, but the search stopped and nothing changed.”

González Monagas says that in Miranda the dangers of cocoa trading continue: in the Troncal 9 roadway they throw rocks at cars and buses to force them to stop and rob the passengers.

A recent event concerning cocoa in Miranda is charged with tragic irony. In July 2022, after participating in the Expoferia Cacao y Ron Miranda 2022 in Caracas, renowned chocolatier Amanda García returned to Barlovento and found that her home and chocolate shop were stripped bare while she was away. They took her machines, her raw materials, and her finished products. And it’s not the first time this has happened.

The theft of cocoa from the crops is frequent. The fruit is sold by the bucket in villages in Miranda, Sucre, Carabobo, and even the Naguanagua market in Valencia. Extortion, invasions, and kidnappings happen in Sucre. In Zulia, traffickers buying cocoa in the villages carry it through the backroads to the other side of the border, in backpacks, and resell it in Colombia. Cocoa contraband didn’t end in the 18th century. There’s still good Venezuelan cocoa going out of the country untraced, and it ends up being sold under any identity. “The one from Caicara,” says producer Albe Gorrín, “is taken out through the Orinoco. Or even worse: they blend it with cocoa they have over there and then you lose the identity of all those cocoas.”

Land invasions impact forest reserves and, of course, lands where there is or could have been cocoa crops. On the roadways, farmers have to pay the gangs or the authorities at checkpoints. In Bolívar, mining activities have taken over lands that were used to harvest food and cocoa, and any farmer moving equipment or produce is exposed to be shaken down by the military as if he were a miner. The irony, according to Gorrín, is that Bolívar offers “over 5,500,000 hectares free of heavy metals and suited for agriculture, to expand the agricultural border. Us farmers don’t want to find gold or any other metal in our lands, because then miners would come and not one cocoa tree would be left standing.”

Too Difficult

What in other cocoa-producing countries are routine calculations and procedures, is a challenge in Venezuela. In Carabobo, for example, given the freight charges of land transport, a buyer prefers to send a truck to the farm only when the farmer has gathered two or three thousand kilos, to make the trip worthwhile. “In the meantime,” Morales says, “you’re holding the cocoa and it’s losing value.” 

The myths Chacón has heard many times—like cocoa being a very fragile crop that takes a long time to yield—contribute to the fact that cocoa plantations are currently so few. Meanwhile, seeds of CCN-51 have already entered Venezuela. This cloned cocoa was developed in Ecuador in 1965, has a high productivity rate but low aroma and flavor, and high astringency. Catalina Ramis, chief of the Programa de Cacao del Instituto de Genética of the UCV, says that the CNN-51 is very susceptible to a fungus that can cause huge losses in crops, and threatens the genetic diversity of Venezuelan cocoa.

According to a source who wishes to remain anonymous, this cloned cocoa arrived in 2018 from Colombia, brought in by Apure farmers abandoned by Venezuelan institutions. It may have spread from there, although its production and distribution has been banned since January 2022. 

For Rodrigo Morales, who keeps producing in Canoabo valley, all this has to do with another valley that is wider and deeper: the difference between how the world’s chocolatiers appreciate Venezuelan cocoa, and how much we Venezuelans really care about it.

This is the first piece of a series on Venezuelan cocoa. The rest is coming soon to Caracas Chronicles. A Spanish version of this article was first published in Cinco8.