Former prime minister, agrarian Sir James Mitchell says there is much money to be made in cocoa cultivation. (Photo: searchlight.vc)

ST. VINCENT:- The main opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) is proposing that St. Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) moves into cocoa production as banana earnings dwindle and the country attempts to diversify its agricultural sector.

“There is a fantastic and great market for it. [The] United Nations has organisations that are ready to do it and I am in contact with the people who are prepared to come to St. Vincent and organise the cocoa production and finance the farmers,” said NDP founder and former prime minister, agrarian Sir James Mitchell at a recent campaign rally in Marriaqua.

“The demand is there — a massive demand for quality — and we can produce it. We have the soil, we have the rainfall, we have the people who are interested and we know that we can do it. We have done it in the past and we know we can do it again,”Sir James said.

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He said that representatives of Armajaro, a company which buys seven per cent of existing cocoa production, will visit the country on Dec. 12

Sir James first floated the idea of diversification into cocoa at the NDP convention in July.

He said that the party has since identified 70 farmers who are ready to begin cultivating the cash crop on an aggregate of 500 acres of land.

Sir James said the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) has described the proposal as rubbish but local agricultural officers say that it is “a good idea”.

“It only goes to show how they run their show. They don’t want any good advice. But, you know, every idea of Son Mitchell is a bad idea. But I don’t pick up ideas in the street like that. I do a lot of research,” said Sir James, referring to himself by his nickname.

Sir James quoted a recent report by Howard Yana-Shapiro, a researcher for Mars chocolate, which among other things, said that “without engineering higher-yielding cacao trees, demand would outstrip supply within 50 years”.

“We have said to you that there is a great market. The price has moved from $5,000 a tonne to $15,000 a tonne,” said Sir James, who has experience in cocoa propagation.

He said a new variety of the plant, CCN51, can bear fruits within three to four years, produce three times as much cocoa, which also weigh more than beans produced by previous varieties.

“The countries that have been producing cocoa can’t produce enough and even crazy [Hugo] Chavez is telling the people in Venezuela that they must start planting cocoa,” Sir James said.

He said other crops can be planted among the juvenile cocoa trees and this form of agriculture might be more attractive to Vincentian youth.

“These young people today [are] not interested in hoe and cutlass. Get that quite straight. You better organise an agriculture today that will attract young people,” he said, adding that this is “fundamentally important”.

“But nobody, young or old, [doesn’t] like to just go and pick a fruit. That’s all you have to do,” he said, adding that solar energy can be used to dry the cocoa beans.

Sir James said cocoa buyers register farmers and their farms because they want to know where the beans were produced.

“So, nobody will be able to steal cocoa and sell it because it will not be bought. It is as simple as that,” Sir James said.

“We know that we can get back into business to have an agricultural crop that will make sure we are back into making over $100 million a year out of agriculture and doing it in a way that is environmentally sound, economically sound and giving opportunities to our people.

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Sir James said the NDP has been developing plans “to make sure we rescue this country and bring back agriculture and doing it in a way that will be beneficial to you for a long time”.

He further said that the cocoa industry requires no protection from the United States, the World Trade Organisation or the European Union.

Unless production increases, demand for cocoa could outstrip supplies in 50 years.

“The market is there, the market is expanding,” Sir James said, adding that less than one percent of China’s 1.3 billion people have tasted chocolate.

“People in St. Vincent are desperate to find a new direction and we in this New Democratic Party will produce the opportunities for you to go forward,” Sir James said.

Sir James spoke of the opportunities in cocoa production even as he lamented the “glory days” in 1990 when banana exports generated EC$120 million (US$44.44 million) per year.

He said that in 2000, banana earning had fallen to EC$50 million (US$18.51 million).

“So, when we left you, you were getting EC$50 million at least for your banana and since Ralph there, 2008, the figure is EC$11 million,” he said of Prime Minister Dr Ralph Gonsalves, who came to office in March 2001.

Sir James further said that his NDP administration had failed in its attempt to device a system to limit the number of boxes of bananas a vehicle could transport to Kingstown and hence limit damage to fruit to be exported.

“The point I want to makes is this: the problem I had was with too much bananas. Look where we are today — all gone through. … Sad and difficult! And it is affecting the quality of life of every one of you,” he said.

NDP president and opposition leader, Arnhim Eustace, speaking at the same event, said that the banana industry, under Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party (ULP) administration, belongs to the Cabinet, where all major decisions are made because of the Banana Act.

He however said that the Ministry of Agriculture was not providing the chemical needed to spray the plants and Fairtrade, a farmers’ organisation, often has to finance the service even as the industry battles black sigatoka , moko and other diseases.

“So, the government is not playing the role it is supposed to play under the very act the government brought before Parliament,” Eustace said.