Cocoa farmer fights the Venezuelan President Chavez over his plantations in the Caribbean

Cocoa Pods on the Trunk

Cocoa Pods on the Trunk

No question of biting, chewing and swallowing! You could taste milk chocolate like this but it would be a sin with this dark bar. “This chocolate must be tasted like good wine“, Kai Rosenberg says, 69 years old.

He cuts a piece with his knife, puts it in his mouth and melts it on the tongue to release the aromatic flavour.

This is the precise moment in which the expert decides if it’s a common product or a gourmet chocolate. The flavour even determines the origin of the cocoa. “It has a wooden and honey taste“ Rosenberg says: “This is Criollo, no doubt“. A brief smile lightens up his face, it’s a moment of happiness for the chocolate addict.

Criollo is king among the different varieties of cocoa. He carefully wraps the chocolate in a piece of aluminum wrap and puts it in his sample case, knowing that flavour of the chocolate from his seeds will be this good or even better.

It still doesn’t have a name but that’s not very important. As with grapes for a good red wine, the the origin of the cocoa is a decisive factor. And in his case, it couldn’t be better: Rosenberg’s haciendas are in Choroní, Venezuela. Chocolate makers from all over the world flock to this town in the Caribbean coast. He enthusiastically says: “Our cocoa is the Rolls-Royce of beans.“

Three hours by car from Caracas, in the midst of the forest of the Henri Pittier National Park, is his Hacienda Monterosa. Parrots screech, monkeys howl and lightning announcing a tropical storm can be seen in the distance.

His white linen shirt sticks to his body and mosquitoes buzz around his head. But he’s happy because its his life’s work: Five plantations of 5 to 20 hectares with 30 varieties of Criollo bean.

But this success also awakened the appetite of president Hugo Chávez. The populist left winger fears a resurgence of colonialism. “Europeans are exploiting us“, he thundered during his “Aló Presidente“, and at the end of last year, the National Guard occupied and confiscated Rosenberg’s plantations.

Landless farmers set up their shacks among the cocoa plants and a state cooperative will take charge of the plantation. The owner fears that “within six months all the plants will be ruined”.

Rosenberg came to Venezuela at 18, visited the entire country, lived among the Yanomami indians in the jungle, explored the savanna of the Orinoco and finally established himself in Caracas. He embraced citizenship many years ago and made his fortune as co-founder of an insurance company, “but that didn’t satisfy me”.

18 years ago he bought the hacienda in Choroní. He acquired books on cocoa production and started to experiment, rehearse, graft and clone; his plantation soon became a biological laboratory, the aim of such sophistication being the decision to produce raw material for the world’s best chocolate, “which does not come from Switzerland”, he says, “the Swiss produce the best milk chocolate but a good chocolate does not need milk”, just a little sugar and a minimum of 65% cocoa. Naturally, the best cocoa comes from Venezuela.

In colonial times, this cocoa already enjoyed legendary fame and was the most important export staple of the 17th century. Thousands of black slaves toiled almost to death on the so called Cocoa Coast. Dictators enriched themselves as farmers remained in poverty.

The South American country currently produces less that one percent of world output. Farmers collect the fruit manually and dry it behind their houses. “It is not possible to mechanize cocoa production”, Rosenberg states.

Of late, the region has had a new emergence and European chocolate makers invest in abandoned plantations. The sale of high quality chocolate is excellent and the demand for the Criollo bean is on the rise. “Venezuelan Black“ is successful in London’s best shops.

President Chávez would like the Venezuelan government to participate in the choco-boom and offered Rosenberg the creation of a local chocolate factory together with PDVSA, because “We don’t want to be only exporters of raw material“.

“In reality it is an offer not to be turned down“, Rosenberg thinks. He nevertheless declined fearing the whims of the impulsive strong man who constantly turns to new ideas. The know-how is also missing: “There is only one chocolate taster in the whole country”.

Rosenberg obtained his first crop last year and got double the price in the world market. Now he negotiates to get his plantations back which could produce up to 100 tons yearly – “if God and Chávez let me“. Which in Venezuela is almost the same.

By Jens Gluesing reporting in Der Spiegel International

Kai’s daughter Jessica worked at Rococo.
Chantal comments

My friend of more than 20 years, Jessica Rosenberg, came to see me a short while ago to tell me about the horrible situation in Venezuela on her father’s cocoa farm. She did not want to go public about the fact that Chávez had expropriated their land, and is also planning to seize several other high profile cocoa farms in the area.

This part of Venezuela has come under the spotlight in the last year or so as the home of Willie Harcourt Cooze’s cocoa project. In fact they are “next door neighbours” in farming terms. Willie has been watched by so many people in the UK on Channel 4 as “Willie’s Wonky Chocolate Factory” and Chávez has taken a dim view of
these broadcasts, suggesting that Willie has made a fortune on the back exploiting the local farm workers. The idea seems laughable if only it was not so
serious…

It is tragic to see great cocoa being tended lovingly for years being snatched away from the rightful owners and effectively then being left to rack and ruin just when it is becoming productive.

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