The revival of Brazil’s cacao sector: is anything really changing? by Lee Pegler and Luiza Teixeira

Bouncing back from a devastating crop disease (vassoura de bruxa), Brazilian cacao producers are showing a different face. Many of the old plantations have been ‘taken over’ by younger family members who seem keen to present more sustainable products and methods. As discussed here, a 2017 visit and forthcoming research seek to evaluate the development significance of these changes.

In a 2017 seminar, the State University of Santa Cruz (UESC) brought together farmers, buyers, technicians, and governmental experts (plus a few academics) in an attempt to discuss challenges and prospects of a sustained revival of Brazilian cacao and chocolate production. UESC and the town of Ilheus are pivotal as they sit at the northern edge of the main cacao-producing region of Brazil[1], an area that still boasts over 40,000 farms/farmers. Brazil itself seems set to move from number 5 to number 4 in the ranking of global producer nations. What difficulties are involved in such a move and, more pointedly, what do the various actors really mean by sustainability?

In fact, this question concerning the (social) sustainability of the Brazilian cacao chain has a very pertinent historical precedent. When we look back to the novels (e.g. Gabriella) of Jorge Amado (a hero of Ilheus himself)[2], with their vivid dramas highlighting powerful farmers (treated as Coronels/coronéis), hierarchical social relations, slave-type conditions and sexual exploitation in the cacao sector, it comes as no surprise that Brazil is the only one of the large cacao producers for whom small-scale farmers have not dominated national production estimates. This concentration of wealth and power also came to be reflected, at a consumption level, in comments about local farmers “travelling to Paris to have a haircut” (during the heyday of local cacao production).

Most importantly, from a global development and social justice perspective, what is important to examine is the likelihood that the sector’s revival will mean real change to both the social mindset and practice of a resurgent farmer class. Has the recent shake-up in the market, production quality/reliability, and a new era of farmers been enough to lead to substantive change in social relations on farms and within the chain? On this, the seminar and field visits canvassed a very practical range of concerns and viewpoints on what was needed for a revived and sustainable sector.

Discussions in the seminar and at technical facilities focused on scientific quality processes in the field, the laboratory, and on production and marketing. The greatest strains appeared evident between established/large producer families and new or smaller facilities, social actors (communities/cooperatives), and the like. Sustainable production and commercial practices remained fundamental to all, but as this moved to questions of collective action, inter-group cooperation, and substantive changes to social relations on the farm, a sense of unanimity became far less clear.

Without doubt, all agreed that they had moved substantially from earlier modes of production and that child labour, bonded conditions, and the like no longer existed. Field visits even gave good impressions that more participative production, land sharing and autonomy had emerged alongside some impressive on-farm ‘tree to bar’ and social cooperative ventures in local communities (assentamentos) and within some large-scale farms.

Yet the extent to which this has changed and implications from a labour security or social justice perspective could not be gleaned from this brief visit. Even from a solely production point of view, the question of sustainable practices is strongly debated, as is evident from issues such as whether random planting, full sun, or shade tree plantation areas (let alone mixed crop/multiple livelihood strategies!) should be promoted. Yet each has quite specific implications for worker/small scale farmers and community development.

Not uncommon questions about the reach and depth of local (e.g. Project Cacao), sectoral (Cacao Connect), company (Body Shop/Tony Chocolonely), and multi-actor/international coalitions (e.g. Coco Action via UTZ, ICCO) to promote ‘best practice’ have also arisen. The community does not appear to be united in terms of what the various forms of multistakeholder alliances might be able to do in terms of representation and ‘teeth’ (to enforce any common agreements).

Further work on this case study (as part of the ISS Brasil Plan/GOLLS project) took place during 2018, involving staff of ISS and UESC. We soon plan to provide a more consistent overview of ownership and production models in the south Bahia/Ilheus region and to set up a series of case studies of: a) local social sustainability, and b) the governance of sustainability processes, for staff and students to pursue during 2019.

The broader question behind this research is whether structural, market, and generational change has allowed a greater link to be made between economic upgrading (of the cacao chain) and the upgrading of social conditions and relations (i.e. greater social justice) in a situation where Brazil is seeking to find a stronger place in the global market (for cacao/chocolate). This requires not only a methodical analysis of chain governance and of production and social relations (at market, community, and family levels), but also further reflections on how we study, interpret, and classify ‘well-being’. How far have we really moved from the vision of Jorge Amado?

[1] And all exports (both raw cacao and more finished goods from the area) move out of the Port of Ilheus.

[2] The well-known Brazilian romantic/historical novelist – see for example Amado, J. (1958 – 1ST ed.) Gabriela, Cravo e Canela, Livaria Martins Editora, Sao Paulo.

About the author:

IMG_0726Lee Pegler spent his early career working as an economist with the Australian Labour Movement. More recent times have seen him researching the labour implications of “new” management strategies of TNCs in Brazil/ Latin America. This interest expanded to a focus on the implications of value chain insertion on labour, both for formal and informal workers. Trained as an economist and sociologist (PhD – LSE), he currently works as Assistant Professor (Work, Organisation and Labour Rights) at the ISS.

Foto_Bliss copy.jpgLuiza Teixeira achieved her PhD in Public Administration and Government, in 2016, and her dissertation theme focused on Public Participation in Municipal Legislative Branches in Brazil. Luiza is a Professor at Santa Cruz State University, in the Administration and Accountancy Department. Recently she has been involved in research projects on the field of Public Administration, especially with the themes of Public Participation, Social Control, Accountability, and Local Development.


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  • Jim Lucas
    10 January 2019

    I am a cacau prodocer in Bahia and take great exception to the use of Jorge Amado literature as a source of scientific analysis.

    Amado produced ficticious novels that construed Cacau farmers as robber barons that enslaved the disadvantaged while living in luxury. The reference of ” traveling to France to have hair cut” establishes your “investigative report” as equally fictional. I challenge you to return to Bahia and meet with 3rd generation farmers to experience a truly historic revelation. The University Santa Cruz falls short of experience in the social welfare of cacau workers.

    I suggest you do in depth research of Amados life to establish his social and political experiences in Ilheus. Most of his creations were compiled in Europe where he was living the good life, far from the reality of cacau farming. His limagined life of a cacau farmer borders on pulp fiction.

    My name is Jim Lucas and husband of a 3rd generation cacau producer. Our farm is Venyurosa near the city of Floresta Azul. If you have the courage to know truth. I will assemble 20 other families with similar stories. I would love to debunk your writings.
    Jim Lucas

    • lee pegler
      14 January 2019

      Dear Jim

      Thank you very much for your reply to our blog. This helps us learn and set up a dialogue.

      We used the reference to Amado to provoke and as an alliteration to help us engage in a research process, one we plan to start in earnest this year. I am very sorry if we have offended or misrepresented.

      Yet many indicators do suggest that very hierarchical social relations have existed in the sector and that there is presently a strong sense of questioning in the sector about how improved quality, sustainability and disease resistance can be promoted. As social scientists we add the question, how might this also improve social relations (along the chain) and to what level (i.e. how do we measure and consider improvement)?

      We are only just setting up the research framing (via the 2017 seminar and a few recent visits) for the research to come. In this regard we would be very pleased to meet and learn from you and your colleagues during 2019. That would be a very great opening and opportunity for us. This work would also help us to further contextualize our work within a history of Ilheus. This work would, like all we try to do at the ISS, be done in the most professional and respectful way.

      We look forward to your reply.

      Dr. Lee Pegler