COARACI, BRAZIL - With an attentive eye, Henrique Almeida watches a technician carefully open a hundred cocoa pods, while another worker on the plantation collects samples in bags to check whether the batch conforms to the "South Bahia" geographical indication.
Like famed wines from specific regions in Europe, such as France's Champagne, the geographical indication (GI) denotes the origin and quality of the cocoa, leading to higher prices that are a boon to farmers who meet the exacting standards.
"The production of fine cocoa and the creation of the geographical indication label make it possible to have a profitable business and pull our region upwards," Almeida explained.
The 63-year-old comes from a cocoa-growing family that has been farming for three generations. In 2006, he acquired the hundred-year-old Sagarana farm, 148 acres (60 hectares) on a hillside in Coaraci, in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia.
Farmers had previously been confined to the production of common cocoa, intended for the chocolate industry.
But after the "witches' broom" disease in 1989 drastically reduced the productivity of Bahia's cocoa trees — which provide up to 86 percent of national output — Almeida, like other producers in southern Bahia, chose to improve the quality of his crop in order to be able to continue growing.
"When I bought the farm, standard cocoa prices were low, and cocoa farmers were unmotivated, while the chocolate market was doing well," he told AFP. "I started growing fine cocoa to make my own chocolate and add value to my product."
Higher value cocoa
He then established a production method that was longer and more precise than that for common cocoa. After picking and opening the pods and sorting out the quality seeds, he would put them in wooden tubs to ferment for seven to eight days, stirring them every 24 hours to allow the chocolate aroma to develop.
He would then leave the beans to dry in the sun for several days, covering them in case of strong heat or rain.
It has paid off: on average, GI-labeled cocoa costs between 40 to 160 percent more than common cocoa.
Fine cocoa currently makes up almost half of Almeida's production, and 40 percent of the high-quality beans comply with the specifications for the "South Bahia" GI.
This label is the result of a decade of work by Almeida and other fine cocoa producers, as well as cooperatives and researchers, after they created the South Bahia Cocoa Association (ACSB) to define the production rules.
The National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) registered the GI in 2018.
It is the second GI given to Brazilian cocoa, after the Linhares region in the state of Espirito Santo, which was registered in 2012, and before the Tome-Acu, which was registered at the beginning of 2019.
The South Bahia registration established stricter qualitative criteria.
"We didn't want a simple certification proving the historical-cultural heritage of cocoa in the region," said biologist Adriana Reis, a co-founder of the ACSB.
"We wanted to use it to defend the quality of this product and protect the environment and social rights, which would also let us differentiate ourselves."
In particular, for a batch of cocoa to be a GI candidate, at least 65 percent of the beans must be fully fermented, with a moisture content of less than eight percent and less than three percent of internal defects, such as mold, insects or sprouts.
In order to verify compliance with the rules, farmers send samples to the Center for Cocoa Innovation (CIC), an independent laboratory founded in 2017.
If the results come back positive, the ASCB technicians will run a visual test onsite and send a second sample from the same batch to the lab.
The association also monitors the agro-forestry production system, in order to protect the Atlantic forest in which the cocoa trees grow and to ensure compliance with labor codes.
Since April 2018, 25 farmers have already certified 40 tons of cocoa with the GI, 15 percent of the 300 total tons of cocoa produced in southern Bahia.
And the amount should increase, especially since chocolate made from GI-stamped cocoa will also be able to carry the label.
"In order to get more farmers interested in the GI, buyers need to pay more for this cocoa," said Reis. "This year, we created a QR code to improve product traceability, which is increasingly demanded by consumers."