Fair Trade cacao, Panama: COCABO

“I’ve seen it all”, says Elma, in an accent that was both startling yet familiar. “In my 25 years here, I’ve seen the ups and downs. There are good years and bad years”, she says in Spanish, with a distinctly Caribbean lilt. I’d forgotten that I was right on the Caribbean coast. Elma, a tall, indomitable lady with a hearty laugh and friendly manner, was happy to give me an insight into the COCABO co-op.

A one-hour sweaty, undulating bicycle ride from Changuinola, the dusty town I was staying in, led me to Almirante, where COCABO is located. Almirante’s prime motive for existence seems to be its port. Squashed  together are the tourists and the traders; the traders look like they won. Tourists do their best to pass through quickly on their way to the idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro.

Ignoring the constant shouts from tourist touts I asked for directions to the co-op. Port smells (fish and diesel) filled the air and people (potentially smelling of fish and diesel as well) filled the streets, and a few minutes later, skirting the town and its shabby surroundings, I located the COCABO sign. Situated across the road from a container storage site, it was in keeping with the rest of Almirante – neither a glamorous nor picturesque location.

COCABO is predominantly a cacao co-op, though also trades coffee (which is grown in the highlands and comes here already dried) and bananas. The COCABO site contains a small office and warehouse for storing and checking the cacao to be exported overseas.

The office itself was peopled with friendly and helpful workers, right down to the lady who graciously gave me a sugar-fuelled cup of coffee. It had been brewed with the sugar built-in. A great time-saving yet unnecessary exercise.

Elma is in charge here and her presence was striking. Not only is she large, a loud speaker, and funny, but being a female “in charge” is unusual in itself. I’d almost always been introduced to men who were managing affairs at the co-ops I’d visited. Elma was an exception, no question.

Jose Howell, quiet and deliberate, showed me around the warehouse. The bright, laden, 50 kg bags of cacao beans, with their dominant Fair Trade logo, gave me a smile. Oved Millar, enthusiastic and sturdy, demonstrated the cacao quality checker, a kind of enclosed guillotine that cuts the beans placed inside it, allowing him to check the quality more easily by viewing the inside of several beans at once.

This season’s production has been average, but cacao prices on the world market have fallen, so the producers will receive less. Fair Trade helps by giving producers a minimum price and also providing a “social premium” that is invested directly back into the community of the co-op members. Typically, the cacao is separated into 1st and 2nd grade quality, but this year the co-op has mixed them together in order to get a better price. Mixing the cacao together gives a more consistent, higher quality.This year there is not much price difference between grades, and some buyers will pay the same price for both.

Not all farms are certified organic or Fair Trade. Elma is frustrated about it, but realises that for some farmers it is too much work. Another problem that many farmers in the co-op face is being surrounded by conventional banana plantations. The amount of chemicals and pesticides used in their production and the way they are applied (usually by helicopter or airplane) means that some farmers in neighbouring farms are at a high risk of having their products ‘contaminated’.

Elma told me that the price of cacao (paid to the farmer) was around $1.04 / lb*. Any price lower than $1 / lb would make it unprofitable for the producer. Even with Fair Trade, most producers only eke out a living. She would like to see a higher minimum price in order to make a real difference in the farmers’ lives. And she is yet to be convinced by the sustained benefits of Fair Trade. Some buyers make additional donations to the co-op (e.g. a Swiss buyer gives them $10,000 each year) though most pay solely the Fair Trade price. Caustic and funny, her quarter-century with the co-op has given her a philosophical view, even as we shook our heads at the irony of Panamanians eating chocolate made from cacao that comes from other countries. There are good years and bad years, and the producers somehow carry on.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It’s tiring work, after all

Elma invited me back the following day in order to visit the farm of a producer. I declined, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a plane to catch…

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Co-op Statistics: COCABO (Cooperativa de Servicios Multiples Cacao Bocatoreña)

Size: 1,400 producers. Hope to increase to 2,000 in future. Typical production area 3 hectares. Typical co-op production 1-1.2m lbs / year.

Age: 60 years – the oldest co-op I visited on my travels, and the oldest co-op in Panama.

Production: cacao (90% Fair Trade). Fair Trade certified since 2005. Organic bananas for Panama and Costa Rica markets.

*Fair Trade minimum price is $2 / kg (conventional) and $2.30 / kg (organic) with $0.20 / kg in addition, as the “social premium”