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FARMERS

As of early 2013, Maya Mountain Cacao (MMC) comprises a network of 203 certified organic cacao farmers in Belize’s southernmost districts of Toledo and Stann Creek. Our farmers are mostly Q'eqchi' and Mopan Maya, and each speaks their own respective languages. Interestingly, most Mayans in Belize speak both Maya languages as well as English, and some also speak Spanish. Although native cacao trees grow wild in some parts of the Belizean jungle, farming cacao has been picking up slowly over the last 50 years. There have been three main growth spurts for cacao farming in recent decades: one with the arrival of Hershey’s to Belize in the early 1980’s, the second with the expansion of a local cacao growers’ co-op in collaboration with Green & Black’s chocolate brand in 1993, and the third with the introduction of a new market and model for sourcing cacao by Taza Chocolate and MMC beginning in 2010. With stable market access, expansion of services for farmers and rising prices, cacao farms have begun growing in size, scope and productivity, improving farmer livelihoods and creating industry growth.

Many Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Mayans rely on subsistence farming and grow a traditional crop package of beans, corn and rice, as well as some fruit trees like coconut, banana, soursop, starfruit.

Cacao is currently the main cash crop in rural Mayan households and is the sole source of income for many of the farmers in our network.

MMC’s farmers collectively grow about 30 MT of IMO-certified organic cacao yearly, but have the potential to grow much more. The third-party organic certification presents more of a formality than a fundamental change in attitudes and behaviors, as cacao farms in the region are traditionally managed without chemical use because it is both unnecessary and prohibitively expensive for smallholders. Our smallholders manage cacao farms ranging from one to over 10 acres. Other common sources of income include ginger, coffee and cardamom sold in neighboring Guatemala, raising cattle or engaging in part-time employment in the growing tourism industry. Typical foods for the villagers include caldo - a chicken broth-based soup served with corn tortillas and a stew made with cohune cabbage - the heart of a cohune palm used as a meat alternative.
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Farmer in San Antonio harvesting the first cacao of the season.
Farmers use some of their cacao for the Mayan chocolate drink - unfermented, sun-dried, hand-ground cacao mixed with warm water, which they use as a coffee alternative and drink a few times in any given day. Most Mayans get their food from their farms and the jungle, using little to no canned, store-bought ingredients.

Family is of utmost importance in the Mayan communities, where it is common to raise ten or more children and build clusters of homes to keep the family unit close together. MMC farmers range from youths who are just starting out, to veteran farmers, with the average age of 44 years in 2013. Many families today put their children through both primary and secondary school, the latter of which comes with tuition costs per each child. While men typically assume the role of farm managers, many women are called on to help out on the farm and take over when necessary. Besides caring for their numerous children and grandchildren, many Mayan women also engage in traditional crafts, such as weaving strands of jippi jappa palm into baskets and ornaments or weaving kuxtal bags.