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Did you know Belize is about twice the size of Jamaica? That it’s the only English-speaking country in Central America? That it has pyramids, jaguars, the world’s second largest coral reef, and world-class cocoa?
Nestled between the Caribbean Sea and Mexico and Guatemala, Belize is home to a growing cocoa industry based on fine flavor varieties carried from South America to Mexico over many centuries. Highly adapted to the local climate, a wide range of cacao varieties grow naturally in the Belizean wilderness along with vanilla and cacao’s cousin Theobroma bicolor, also known as Mocambo, Pataxte, or Balam. In fact, it was a Belizean criollo plant that was used to sequence the cocoa genome by the International Cocoa Genome Sequencing Consortium.
Belize has great potential to increase cocoa production as the decline in the citrus industry continues due to disease. The country also has a farming base with a deep history of cultivating cocoa using agroforestry models, decades of large scale plantation agriculture experience, and excellent planting material.
Most cocoa is grown by smallholder farmers, and a large percentage of the crop is marketed as organic. However, in the 1980s the Hershey Corporation set up a large operation to grow cocoa at large scale at Middlesex in the Stann Creek district, while providing training to small growers in the area with support from USAID. The project has recently been rehabilitated with excellent results.
In addition, CATIE set up several trial plots in the South about 10 years ago, and planting material is now being produced from these trees. Several larger scale operations are now interplanting cocoa with coconut, with production starting within 18 months of planting.
Right now, cocoa is sold locally to chocolate makers including the Belize Chocolate Company, Goss Chocolate, Belcampo, Cotton Tree Chocolate, Moho Chocolate, Ix Cacao, Che’il Mayan Chocolate and Mahogany Chocolate who have a strong sales base among tourists to Belize. The majority of Belizean cacao—roughly 70%– is exported to craft chocolate makers in the USA and Europe. Belize is still a very small origin for cacao producing less than 150 tons per year in total. However, chocolate made from Belizean beans has won several awards in international competitions, and is a Heirloom designation recognized by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association. The key exporter is Maya Mountain Cacao, part of the Uncommon Cacao group.
Earlier this year Maya Mountain Cacao, Corridgeree Belize and other industry participants formed the Cacao Agroforestry Institute of Belize. The group’s mission is to make sure cocoa production in Belize will scale sustainably. The immediate aims are to continue earlier work done to assess the local varieties for flavor, yield and disease resistance, and to provide training in the agroforestry system to small farmers.
In addition to excellent infrastructure including roads, two ports and a new fiber optic internet network, Belize’s export development agency Beltraide offers financial incentives to potential investors. All of the pieces are in place for the industry to expand in Belize as demand for fine flavor, traceable cocoa continues to grow.