La Siembra: Sowing the Seeds of Change

The unethical nature of the cacao trade and its damaging consequences are well documented. In lecture this semester, we discussed several channels of response that could effectively confront these problems. This included governmental and/or international intervention, NGO responses, or even consumer campaigns and boycotts. However, it is my belief that corporate responsibility is the most effective form of protest. Ultimately, chocolate makers and manufacturers can exercise the most effective form of opposition to the current dynamic by adopting a clear stance on unfair cacao trading practices. Several companies have already undertaken this process. The La Siembra cooperative (which produces the Camino line of chocolate products) is committed to the improvement of the welfare of cacao workers as well as the environmental sustainability of cacao-producing regions through its involvement in initiatives that economically empower the communities of these workers, such as the Fairtrade and organic certifications.

The La Siembra Cooperative is an Ottawa, Canada based chocolate maker that exclusively produces Fairtrade and Organic certified chocolate products under the brand name Camino. The cooperative was founded in 1999 by 3 entrepreneurs who had previously worked overseas in the chocolate industry and witnessed questionable practices in the cacao trade. The founders adopted a worker cooperative business structure similar to the cooperatives that have been forming in the cacao-producing regions. Therefore, every worker owns a share of the company and can contribute to business decisions. The firm wanted to create chocolate products made from sourced cacao that had been purchased at a fair price, thus benefitting the cacao-producing workers. However, to this point, there were no established guidelines for buying cacao that was “fairly traded”. Undeterred, in 2002, La Siembra worked closely with Fairtrade Canada to create a certification system for Fairtrade cacao in the country. Through these efforts, La Siembra became the first importer of Fairtrade certified cacao in North America. 13 years later, their line of Camino chocolate includes products such as chocolate bars, baked goods, and drinking chocolate. The company’s products are competitively priced with an average 3.5-ounce bar costing roughly $4-5. Camino chocolate has been highly successful, generating upwards of $6 million in annual sales. (La Siembra website) Despite its commercial success, La Siembra remains committed in their vision of fostering an equitable cacao trade as well as participating in environmental sustainability. The company sources its cacao from 18 producer cooperatives in 9 different countries. All told, La Siembra supports over 35,000 workers in the cacao and sugar producing industries. In the spirit of full transparency and consumer awareness, the company lists and describes all the producer cooperatives it partners with on its website. This allows customers to understand where their chocolate is grown and reassures them that they are contributing to an equitable cacao trade.

La Siembra demonstrates its promise to improve the well being of cacao workers through its involvement in the Fairtrade movement. Historically, large chocolate manufacturers have controlled the price of cacao in order to create high profit margins. This has caused cacao producers to resort to exploitative labor practices, such as child labor. (Orla 44)

Chart that shows the breakdown of farmers’ share in the retail price of a chocolate bar (Oxfam)

According to a recent Oxfam study, cacao farmers only see 3% of the retail price of a chocolate bar. (Oxfam) The Fairtrade movement pays cacao farmers a premium for their product in exchange for adhering to specific production conditions. According to Fairtrade Canada, the motivations of the Fairtrade movement are to “provide fair compensation to workers for their products and labor, to encourage sustainable environmental practices, to improve social services, and to increase investment in local economic infrastructure.” As previously mentioned, La Siembra was the first importer of Fairtrade certified cacao and continues to adhere to this strict standard. The company sources its entire cacao from family farmers that are members of producer cooperatives. La Siembra visits its trading partners to learn more about their successes and challenges and also encourages them to observe the markets where their products are sold. This creates a spirit of transparency and cooperation between the chocolate maker and its partner cooperatives.

This promotional video highlights the firm’s belief that consumers can become involved in the cacao trade by choosing to buy chocolate that pays an “honest” price to the producer. It also features an interview from the director of CEPICAFE, a cacao, coffee, and sugar cooperative in Peru. He stresses that their inclusion in Fairtrade and partnership with La Siembra has resulted in a positive impact on the entire community. Since partnering with La Siembra in 2009, the cooperative has grown to 6,600 family farmers and has used its excess profits (from the Fairtrade premiums) on several community projects. CEPICAFE (now called Norandino) has made technical agronomy assistance available to all family farmers part of the cooperative. This helps increase output and quality of product for the farmers while also utilizing more environmentally friendly farming techniques. To become more appealing to buyers, the Peruvian cooperative has invested in several production and processing facilities.

norandino plant
Norandino coffee processing facility (Norandino website)

This particular coffee facility can process up to 5 tons of coffee beans per hour. Such technological advances help improve the quality of product that the cooperative sells, which further increases their sales. (Norandino website) The cooperative’s recent success has resulted in construction plans for new cacao and sugar facilities to be opened by 2015, such as the one pictured below.

Screen Shot 2015-05-05 at 8.46.00 PM
New completed cacao facility (Norandino website)

The cooperative also offers credit to members so that they can manage their finances without having to wait for post-harvest sales. CEPICAFE has even established a funeral fund for its members and their families. These projects have a lasting impact on the community and are only made possible through the purchases made by importers such as La Siembra. More importantly, the purchase of cacao and other produce through the Fairtrade model has important consequences that are not directly reflected in the farmer cooperatives’ profits. By adhering only to Fairtrade agreements, La Siembra is empowering these local farmer communities. Their excess profits are a result of normalized business dealings, and not that of humanitarian aid or other “handouts”. This distinction is important because it creates a belief within these communities that they can be successful of their own accord. (Adams et al. 259) Additionally, the farmer cooperatives that La Siembra trades with apply a significant portion of their sales to community projects. This improves the quality of life in these communities and makes it more likely that they can break out of the poverty cycle.

La Siembra is also invested in the environmental sustainability of the cacao-producing communities through its purchase of organic certified ingredients. Historically, the growing of cacao has been involved the heavy use of pesticides. La Siembra’s website highlights Lindane, the main pesticide used in non-organic cacao production, as highly detrimental to wildlife. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN, most people carry pesticide residues in their bodies as a result of eating produce grown in this matter. (Organic Agriculture) Therefore, using chemical additives in cacao production affects not only the biodiversity of the growing region, but the consumer population as well. Organic certified produce is grown without the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides. The company believes that organic certified products are healthier for the producer and consumer alike. La Siembra is a strong proponent of cooperatives that utilizes shade grown agricultural techniques. This involves planting shade-giving trees alongside cacao trees. This approach provides alternatives to fertilizers and pesticides. Decomposing shade-giving trees are a natural source of fertilizer for cacao production. The shade canopy provides a habitat for different species that live near cacao trees. Certain birds are more likely to nest in shaded habitats. This creates a natural form of pest protection. A concrete example of La Siembra’s dedication to environmental conservation is their partnership with APPTA, a Costa Rican cacao cooperative. Located in southeastern Costa Rica, APPTA is composed of 1,000 cacao farmers. The farming cooperative specifically employs shade grown agricultural techniques.

Canopy shade technique adopted by APPTA cooperative
Canopy shade technique adopted by APPTA cooperative (APPTA website)

They plant shade-giving trees (roughly 120 feet tall) next to their cacao trees (only 15 feet tall), creating the shade canopy environment. In an effort to reduce carbon emissions, APPTA farmers utilize an industrial wood furnace during the drying and roasting phases of cacao production. (APPTA website) These initiatives by producer cooperatives are instrumental in preserving biodiversity in cacao producing regions. La Siembra takes a strong position on environmental sustainability by only purchasing organic certified cacao. This stance is another example of their efforts to improve the quality of life in cacao farming communities. Pesticides and fertilizers affect soil quality and can significantly damage the land they grow their crops. This can negatively affect crop yields and further financially burden these farming communities. By growing produce organically, the cooperatives are able to see the positive economic benefits of growing crops in this manner. La Siembra’s purchase of only organic certified cacao demonstrates their support for not only environmental conservation of the cacao growing regions, but also the financial situation of the farming communities.

In Spanish, La Siembra means “planting time.” This name was chosen by the founders of the cooperative to signify the leading position the chocolate maker was taking in the Fairtrade business model. La Siembra hopes that other chocolate makers see the firm’s initiatives as well as their commercial success and decide to emulate these trading practices. La Siembra’s impact in the cacao growing regions extends beyond the additional profits that its trading partners receive through the Fairtrade agreements. These normalized business dealings give the communities a sense of self-sufficiency. The farming regions are empowered financially and undertake social projects that benefit the entire community. Likewise, La Siembra’s purchase of organic certified products demonstrates their commitment to environmental sustainability as well as the long-term economic stability of the production regions. As La Siembra continues to grow as a company, the hope is that other chocolate makers see corporate responsibility as part of the path to financial success.

Works Cited

About Us. Norandino, n.d. Web. 6 May 2015.

Adams, Matthew, and Jayne Raisborough. “Making a Difference: Ethical Consumption and the Everyday.” The British Journal of Sociology 61.2 (2010): 256-74. JSTOR [JSTOR]. Web. 6 May 2015.

Camino. La Siembra, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

“Cocoa Fact Sheet.” Oxfam, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

Organic Agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

“Organic Agriculture: What Are the Environmental Benefits of Organic Agriculture?” Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed, 2011. 43-62. Print.

“Sustainability.” APPTA Costa Rica. N.p., 06 Jan. 2015. Web. 06 May 2015.

What Is Fair Trade? Fairtrade Canada, n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.


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