Although it is now widely enjoyed all over the world, a little known fact is that chocolate actually originates from Belize. This favourite treat of many was invented by the ancient Mayans who used to consume it as an important part of their diets.
Because cacao trees, the plant that produces the pods from which cacao seeds are extracted to make chocolate, are native to the Americas, and were first used in the country, Belize is sometimes referred to as the “Cradle of Chocolate.”
Evidence suggests that everyone from Kings to ordinary citizens in ancient Mayan society consumed chocolate liberally with every meal. The mayans favoured consuming chocolate as a drink, much like many rural Mayan families still do today.
One of the main reasons given for Belize not being one of the leading and well known chocolate producers is the lack of funding for cacao production in the country. The plants’ production has a long but troubled history in Belize and still lags behind other cacao-producing countries.
A Short History of Cacao in Belize
It is fair to say that chocolate has a long and storied history in Belize; Mayan chocolate pots have been discovered in Belize that date back over 2600 years! Traces of chocolate have been found in these pots, 14 of which were discovered in 1981, showing that the drink consisted of ground corn, chilli, and honey in addition to cacao.
From all those many years ago, when the Mayans used to pour the chocolate drink into a pot in the ground to achieve the frothy head which they prized the most and considered the best part of the drink, cacao use has evolved in the country.
In the modern age, cacao production in Belize had a good start, with local farmers investing in and growing cacao trees to sell their produce to Hershey’s, one of the world’s largest chocolate producers.
In 1984, Hershey’s went a step further and partnered with the Belizean ministry of Agriculture to support and boost cacao production in the country. Unfortunately, when the world price of cacao began to fall, it became more cost effective for Hershey’s to buy their produce elsewhere so the company dropped its Belize project in 1987.
The immediate result of Hershey’s pulling out was devastating to local cacao production. Farmers began to suffer losses and most cut down their cacao plantations and turned to other cash crops such as oranges.
While chocolate remained a part of the culture and diet in most Belizean homes, the collapse of the local market meant that there was no production or export of cacao in Belize again until well into the 1990’s.
The Current State of Cacao in Belize
Most cacao in Belize is grown in the Toledo district, in the south of the country. As a result, the Toledo Cacao Growers Association (TCGA) has spearheaded the regrowth of the industry in the country and in accessing worldwide markets.
The growers association supports local farmers by providing technical expertise, loans, and advice on growing organic cacao. The variety of cacao beans produced in the region are of the highest quality of flavour beans, one that is most sought after by chocolate makers.
The TCGA is a non-profit organisation that began with 400 acres of cacao land, but now boasts a holding of over 3000 acres on which the plant is grown. The Association now has over a thousand members representing over 50 villages and communities.
With support from the TCGA, the production of Belizean cacao and its market share on the world stage is predicted to double in the coming years. Additionally, prices have recovered somewhat and now stand at $3.00 a pound (from a low of $0.30 c /lb in the nineties responsible for Hershey’s exit), with additional amounts of 14 and 18 cents added for Fairtrade and organic certification.
The TCGA has revived the chocolate industry in Belize, making sure that cacao of such superior quality will now take its rightful place on the world stage.