THE EDITOR, Sir:
The news that one of the leading chocolate companies in the United Kingdom was willing and ready to invest in the local cocoa industry was one of the best things to have happened to the agricultural sector in recent times. If these plans graduate from the dream stage, they could help transform the economy of parts of southeast St Mary and revitalise an important subsector of local agriculture.
According to a recent report in the media, the British company Charbonnel et Walker was willing to invest in a farm of 50-80 acres in St Mary to ensure that it had a reliable and consistent supply of cocoa, and was also exploring the possibility of securing a fermentary. This was indeed very good news for a sector which had witnessed the decline of the sugar, banana and coffee industries in recent years.
Government should act upon this initiative as quickly as possible lest the potential investors change their minds and this opportunity be lost forever. Apart from the property that the company has expressed an interest in acquiring, there are exciting opportunities for other cocoa farmers in and around Richmond, reputed to produce one of the finest-quality cocoas in the world.
These farmers need to be sensitised at the earliest possible opportunity so that they can capitalise on this golden opportunity. Government, through the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, could assist in this process by arranging a meeting of all stakeholders in the industry to discuss the recent developments, as well as the participation of local famers in this process.
Not long ago, there was an initiative to help rehabilitate cocoa trees in cocoa-producing areas around the island. A project funded by the European Union, and executed in conjunction with the Cocoa Industry Board, facilitated training in cocoa-propagation techniques, especially grafting and budding.
After an initial burst of energy and enthusiasm, little else was heard of follow-up work that would have involved the participants in this training exercise using their new-found knowledge to seriously help in the rehabilitation process. These participants could serve in training farmers so that after some time, the latter would be better able to help themselves.
Rehabilitation of the existing cocoa fields is one of the fastest ways to increase production of local cocoa, which is highly regarded on the international market. However, Jamaica has not been producing sufficient quantities of the crop to take advantage of this privileged position, thus missing out on an excellent opportunity to earn valuable foreign exchange, as well as to provide well-needed jobs in a depressed economy characterised by a high unemployment rate.
A properly executed rehabilitation plan, involving the private stakeholder, as well as farmers, would significantly help the economy of Richmond and neighbouring communities through additional job opportunities in the production of cocoa, as well as in the processing of the crop.
The news item made reference to the investors' interest in using the local fermentary, or providing one of their own, which also increases the possibilities for job creation. My strong belief, however, is that the greatest benefit would be derived not from the production of the raw cocoa, but in the value-added aspect.
In this respect, I would urge that the interested parties, and particularly Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke, to examine the possibility of processing the cocoa in Richmond. What comes to mind immediately is the old Cadbury /Highgate Food Products factory, situated on the road between Highgate and Richmond. If this factory could be rehabilitated as well, the chocolates could very well be made in the same areas that the beans were produced, significantly adding to the jobs created for the community.
The successful implementation of this project would no doubt have a positive multiplier effect on farmers in and around St Mary, and would undoubtedly help to spur renewed interest in cocoa production in Jamaica. Most importantly, it would position Richmond as an important agricultural town and further diversify its limited economy. It requires the urgent effort of Government to serve as facilitator, the cooperation of existing farmers, as well as a tenacity of purpose by all to ensure success.