Meeting Report

October 16, 2011

Don Knutson

The Wonder of Fair-Trade Chocolate

According to Wikipedia, “Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based approach that aims to help producers in developing countries make better trading conditions and promote sustainability.” At this meeting, attended by about thirty people, Don Knutson put flesh and bones on that dry description.

Mr. Knutson opened his presentation with a description of the history of Hispaniola, the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, beginning with the world-changing landfall there of Christopher Columbus’ small flotilla in 1492. We all know, of course, that the discovery of the New World by Europeans was disastrous for the indigenous peoples there at the time. However, most of us are only dimly aware that many of the food items that we now take for granted are of New World origin. Chocolate is among those foods.

What we know as chocolate begins with the harvesting and processing of cacao, the bean of a tree that is native to Latin America and which was cultivated on Hispaniola since pre-Columbian times. It quickly became a hit in Europe and led to exploitation of the local populace and their descendants.

Mr. Knutson, through his involvement with Equal Exchange, recently spent time in the Dominican Republic learning about cacao harvesting and processing. Among the interesting things he learned was that due to the complex steps required to make a desirable product, it is almost impossible for individual farmers to do alone. Instead, the work requires cooperative efforts.

This is how the cacao business came to be dominated by a small number of families, and how this circumstance led to strongman governments for generations. But now the tyrants are history and it is possible for cacao producers to organize themselves and earn enough to support their families. This is what Conocado is about—fair trade—fair to the producers, the buyers of their product, and to the environment as well. Furthermore, Mr. Knutson pointed out, fair trade and Conocado have in a single generation reordered the system so that 10,000 independent growers now work for themselves instead of tyrants.

What’s left to be accomplished? Mr. Knutson says that all cacao produced in Dominican Republic is now shipped to Europe to be used in the making of chocolate products. He would like to see at least some of it turned into finished products right there at home, thereby improving the local economy even more. We are all for that.

Thank you, Don Knutson, for an excellent presentation.

Report prepared by Roger Zabkie, Secretary

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