Hot cocoa prices bring sweet profits, danger to Ecuador producers

Hot cocoa prices bring sweet profits, danger to Ecuador producers
Hot cocoa prices bring sweet profits, danger to Ecuador producers
Cocoa prices skyrocketed in March after a poor harvest in West Africa, and remain at record-highs since partially sliding back (MARCOS PIN)

Julia Avellan had been tempted to quit the cocoa business before prices unexpectedly exploded on the international market this year, bringing historic profits to Ecuador’s farmers.

But the “golden” cocoa bean has not escaped the attention of criminals in the small South American nation, wracked by gang violence in recent years.

Avellan, 41, walks through her lush plantation in the central Los Rios province, stopping to slice open a reddish cocoa pod, extracting the slimy bean that will be fermented, dried and roasted on its way to becoming chocolate.

Cocoa prices skyrocketed in March after a poor harvest in West Africa, reaching $10,000 per ton in New York. Prices have since dropped back but are still three times higher than last year.

Countries whose governments do not regulate cocoa prices — such as Ecuador — have seen some of the best profits.

Avellan said she has sold a quintal (100 pounds, 45 kilograms) of cocoa beans for $420, compared to around $60 before the boom which barely covered her investments and “made you feel like quitting as a cocoa farmer.”

“Thanks to these prices, we are going to be more sustainable for our family. We will be able to take care of our plants with even more dedication, because now it truly is the golden seed,” she told AFP.

– Stolen trucks transporting cocoa –

But the bounty has also ushered in danger in a country brought to its knees by organized crime, forcing everyone from shrimp farmers to banana growers to fork out millions in extra security.

“These prices are historic, we have never had them,” said Ivan Ontaneda, president of the national association of cocoa exporters (Anecacao).

He said exporters had already spent around $20 million on security last year, and fears are high that cocaine will end up in their shipments.

Los Rios is one of the most violent provinces in Ecuador with a murder rate of 111 per 100,000 inhabitants.

The figure is even higher than in neighboring Guayas state, whose port capital Guayaquil is the main hub for cocaine trafficking to the United States and Europe.

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“My colleagues have been kidnapped. Not even eight days ago, a young man was kidnapped. They have stolen cars (trucks loaded with cocoa) from companies,” said Avellan.

The threat of crime leads to an “increase in costs” in the cocoa chain, Marco Landivar, manager of a processing plant for the exporter Eco-kakao, told AFP.

“The cargo has to go with private security, all movements to port have double custody,” he adds.

– More expensive chocolate –

After the Ivory Coast and Ghana, Ecuador is the world’s third-largest cocoa grower, producing some 420,000 tons a year.

In recent months, unfavorable weather conditions and devastating diseases in aging plantations have battered crops in West Africa, tipping the scale in favor of the Latin American country.

In Ecuador, small farmers produce 80 percent of the country’s cocoa beans, while the rest are grown by larger plantations.

The beans, the seed of the fruit of the cocoa tree, are dried under the hot equatorial sun in storage centers before being shipped off to delight chocolate lovers around the world.

In 2023, cocoa generated $1.3 billion for Ecuador. In the first four months of this year alone, the country has sold $774 million worth, according to the central bank.

Ecuador’s main markets for cocoa are Indonesia, Malaysia, the United States, the Netherlands and Belgium.

The soaring cocoa price has also led to wild speculation and demand for “much more liquidity, which the export sector does not have at the moment,” Ontaneda said.

He said it was like “blood for the sharks” on the floors of stock exchanges.

“Speculative funds entered the market to buy cocoa in paper form,” before it was harvested, sending prices soaring.

While some local producers reap the benefits, Ontaneda and other experts warn that the soaring prices will force people to cut back on their chocolate habits.

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