OCUMARE DE LA COSTA, Venezuela – There is sweet renewal on the old cacao plantations that just five years ago lay fallow on these lush mountain slopes along the Caribbean coast. Its mother is a lucrative niche market: organic chocolate.
Small farmers enticed by the promise of profits from chocolate's essential ingredient are revitalizing cultivation of the once-neglected plantations.
They swing machetes to clear weeds around trees from which purple, red and green cacao pods hang ripening. They prune the trees, harvest the beans and shovel out fertilizers made from natural ingredients such as rice hulls, coffee and the rough outer skins of cacao.
"You have to give these trees love and care 365 days a year," said farmer Alejandro Rumbos, 72, walking with a machete among the trees.
Oil began to eclipse cacao as a Venezuelan export in the 1920s, but connoisseurs praise the cacao for its aroma and various shades of flavor.
This is due to a unique combination of "climate, light, water, wind," said Jorge Redmond, president of the Venezuelan chocolatier El Rey, or The King, which sells non-organic bars locally as well as in the United States, Europe and Asia.
Redmond said he is working with a group of farmers to develop organic chocolate bars.
Africa is today's big producer, but in the 17th and 18th centuries, Venezuela was a top exporter of cacao to Europe.
Today much of Venezuela's cacao is consumed domestically, but a 1980s glut brought down prices and the industry has stagnated, with farmers turning to more profitable crops such as plantains.
Now, with specialty organic chocolates in vogue in richer lands, organic cacao is fetching as much as four times the price of regular cacao.
Tierra Viva, a Venezuelan nonprofit foundation, has started a project with a farmers' association to produce organic cacao with an eye on Europe or the United States. Tierra Viva says it has funding from the Venezuelan government, the European Union and private companies.
Similar efforts in Brazil and Ecuador have successfully tapped into the specialty chocolate market.
Venezuelan farmers in the area of Ocumare de la Costa, 60 miles west of Caracas, have obtained organic certification and are exporting to the international market.
Twenty farmers from that area sold their first 5.5 tons of organic cacao in December for more than $19,000, or $1.80 a pound, to an Italian intermediary for distribution, said Jose Gregorio Lugo, who markets the association's crop in the central state of Aragua.
Lugo said he plans to sell future production directly to Spanish and Italian chocolatiers for as much as $2.70 a pound.
Organic cacao projects are cropping up across the country's coastal north. Some 30 other farmers are awaiting organic certification of their harvests by a team of inspectors from Biolatina, a regional organic certifier, Lugo said.
To obtain certification, the farmers use natural insecticides. Often, they make fertilizers from compost heaps of cacao skins left to ferment under tarpaulins among their trees.
During the December-June harvest, truckloads of cacao arrive for weighing at the Aragua state cacao farmers' association. Last year, the farmers' association produced about 77 tons.
The raw beans are left to ferment for six days in wooden boxes covered with banana leaves, then laid out on a patio to dry in the sun.
They are later cleaned and placed in sacks for sale — the last step before being shipped off to be turned into chocolate.