Source: Maya Mountain Cacao Ltd.
Region: Punta Gorda, Toledo District
Source Type: Fermentary and social venture
Beans: Purchased (wet) from 300+ farmers
Fermentation Style: Centralized, 3-tier box system
Tasting Notes: green grape, pineapple, honey
Maya Mountain Cacao was founded in 2010 by Alex Whitmore, Jeff Pzena, Gabriel Pop, and Emily Stone. As the founder of Taza Chocolate, Alex was keenly interested in the potential of Belize as a hotbed for premium cacao, and Jeff was running Cotton Tree Lodge—an eco-lodge embedded in the country’s most productive cacao-growing region. As a lifelong cacao farmer, Gabriel Pop grew up among the cacao and producers of southern Belize. Together with Emily, the team saw an opportunity to develop a more farmer-friendly market, leveraging high quality cacao to prevent deforestation and improve the livelihoods of smallholder farmers.
Emily Stone’s work with Maya Mountain over the last few years is largely responsible for launching Belize onto the radar of specialty chocolate makers. As a former grassroots organizer and environmental advocate, Emily is driving forward a model that is disrupting the Belizean cacao industry and breaking a 30-year standard of doing things a certain way. We’ve been working closely with Emily ever since we met during Taza Chocolate Week in 2012, and usually visit a few times a year—continually inspired by the work that Maya Mountain is doing to reinvigorate Belizean cacao in an economically sustainable way. In 2014, our own wholesale manager Maya Granit became the managing director of MMC, and Emily began to concentrate on a new export project in Guatemala—Cacao Verapaz (whose Cahabón beans we recently bought). This year, in recognition of her innovative solutions and capacity to change patterns across society, Emily became an Ashoka Fellow. For a closer look at Maya Mountain’s operations and the cacao industry in southern Belize, keep an eye on our Chocolate Trips page for information about the trips we regularly lead there.
Traditionally, cacao farmers in Belize grow, ferment, dry, and transport their own cacao to market. In the end, the lots are variable, and farmers hold the risk of producing cacao they are unable to sell if it has been improperly fermented or dried. If it can be sold, it will likely fetch little more than the world market price.
Maya Mountain Cacao developed a new model that alleviates the pressure and instability of the market, simultaneously incentivizing sustainable farming techniques and encouraging a more robust and resilient local cacao economy. To curb the financial risk farmers usually incur by renting trucks to bring cacao to their buyer, Maya Mountain centralizes cacao processing, picking up unfermented wet beans from farmers. For the farmer, this means less work and more money (Maya Mountain pays a premium price). All the beans are then fermented and dried by a small staff at the “cacao house”—the fermenting facility adjacent to Cotton Tree Lodge—where beans are rotated through a 3-tier box system and closely monitored for five to seven days, after which they are raked across solar driers under indirect sunlight or spilled across an open-air drying patio. Because the Belizean climate can be wet and unpredictable, solar dryers with plastic siding are the best means of drying properly. After drying, beans are then sorted by hand—sifting out cracked, sprouted, and damaged beans—and sealed in burlap sacks.
Centralizing processing has many upsides, not least of which is the ability to conduct intensive studies around the best processing techniques, ensuring better cacao that sells at a higher price. The eventual influx of this money trickles straight back down to the producer, incentivizing him to grow and ferment the highest quality cacao. MMC also offers pre-harvest microcredit loans, as well as technical support in order to ensure that quality and sustainability standards are met. Additionally, MMC’s higher price standards have forced competitors to raise their own price floors, bolstering the entire region’s cacao farming community. Generally, increased income for farmers shows up as school tuition for their children, home improvements, and the resources to further develop their farms.
MMC works with over 300 farmers, most of whom are Q’eqchi’ and Mopan Maya, spread throughout communities in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Cacao is currently the main cash crop in rural Mayan households, and often the only source of income. Economically, cacao is integral to the survival of the region, but it is also deeply embedded in the cultural history of the Maya, who were the first to domesticate it for commercial and cultural purposes.
Beyond having great cultural import and significant impact on the collective income of a region, cacao is particularly vital as a driver of economic development because it grows best in the shade, organically, thriving in diversified agroforestry systems that mimic the ecosystem services of forests as they naturally exist. In the end, this provides a sustainable habitat, protects water quality, conserves soil fertility, stores carbon, and even generates rainfall.
Ultimately, Maya Mountain is leveraging the power of direct relationships and consistent innovation to shorten supply chains, increase transparency, and catalyze social impact and stewardship of the land.