FARMERS in the small district of Smithville, Clarendon say they have not been paid for over a year by the Cocoa Industry Board after delivering hundreds of boxes of cocoa beans, and have now refused to supply any more of their produce until the matter has been addressed.
The Cocoa Industry Board is a statutory body appointed by the minister of agriculture and is the sole marketing agent for Jamaican cocoa.
Jamaica is recognised as one of eight exclusive world producers of fine or flavoured cocoa, with a significant portion of the precious beans — known best as the main ingredient in chocolate — being exported primarily to Europe, Japan and the United States.
But those who grow the beans feel they have nothing to show for their toil.
Christopher Dawkins, secretary of the Smithville Cocoa/Coffee Group, said the over 300 farmers in the group are not only dissatisfied because they haven't been paid, but are also discouraged by their treatment by the Cocoa Industry Board.
"They want the cocoa but they just not willing to pay for it, so I don't know what is happening," Dawkins said, explaining how the sector was in a downward spiral because of the current situation.
"...the farmers decide not to supply any more because they not getting any pay. So because they not supplying, they (farmers) are not reaping, so you now find that birds and rats eating the crop," he complained.
Dawkins said payments are made on an annual basis at the end of each crop.
He explained that farmers are paid $1,800 per box of cocoa beans as a first payment, then, at the end of the reaping season they are given a second payment of $200 per box if they have delivered over 10 boxes of the beans. Neither payments have been made for over a year.
"I have three collectors in my group and those three collectors, if they collect five, six hundred boxes of cocoa for the year, we could total up that amount of money at $1,800 per box, and the yearly crop ends the end of September and starts the first week in October," Dawkins said.
"I am the secretary for the group and I am supposed to get $40 off each box and right through the year, nothing. I have been working for more than one year now and I have not been getting any pay either," the group secretary said.
Fellow cocoa farmer Joseph Howell is furious.
"They rude man! Very rude! You can't have people picking cocoa and can't get pay. I have been selling cocoa from way back when and never have this problem. They owe me money from November and the cocoa board won't pay me. They owe me one (year's) payment, and we didn't get any bonus in December (second payment), so is two money we supposed to collect," Howell said.
"You know what happening? We don't feel encouraged to pick the crop. We stop picking it, and see, birds eating it," Howell said, pointing to a cocoa pod with a large hole in the side that he said was caused by birds.
"Rats and birds eating them now. If you come to my farm now you will see cocoa on the tree and I don't want to pick it, I don't want to pick it."
Howell said he visited the headquarters of the Cocoa Industry Board on Marcus Garvey Drive in Kingston but nothing came of it.
"I am soon 70, I am a old man and I am still working, but mi not getting any benefits from my farm. I used to get benefits from it. But if I sell cocoa from last year and cannot get pay, it don't motivate mi to pick it. Let the birds eat it!" he declared.
"Mr Roger Clarke need to know what is going on around here. Something need to be done!"
When contacted Friday, Agriculture Minister Roger Clarke conceded that the Cocoa Industry Board had been experiencing serious cash flow problems which have resulted in cocoa farmers across the island not being paid. At the same time, he said, steps are being taken to relieve the Government of the burden of managing the sector.
"The Cocoa Board is under some serious cash flow problems but they are working it out," Clarke said, optimistically.
"I met with the chairman (of the cocoa board) Thursday and they are working on a line of credit from the DBJ (Development Bank of Jamaica), it's just to sign off on it. And they are also in the process of sending a shipment of cocoa which will help their cash flow. So within a week or two they should be on stream," the agriculture minister told the Sunday Observer.
"It has been an ongoing problem with the cocoa industry and that is why we are in the process of divesting the operations from the hands of the government. Its almost in it's closing stages. But we are in the process of divesting," he said.
While unable to say how much money the board is in need of, the agriculture minister said cocoa production had fallen to an approximate 200 tons per annum over the last two or three years, but with the same level of overheads remaining, thus affecting the bottom line. However, he said there had been some more recent improvement.
"We have lifted production somewhat," Clarke said.
"Each year we should do about 600 tons. That should help significantly in organising the system and enabling people to get their money on a timely basis, and those people who have not been paid — and some of them are much before my time — but we are getting that on stream. They should see some improvement within a week or two," Clarke said.
The minister said there are approximately 8,000 cocoa farmers in Jamaica but could not say how much money was owed them. He added that although some persons have been complaining that they had not been paid for months, further checks sometimes revealed that this is not the case.
"Sometimes they have other problems too, where the collectors have collected and the money is in transit, as they are slow in passing over the payment. And sometimes the local organisation (cocoa growers group/association) takes some time to pass on the monies to the farmers," he said. "But they will be all right within a week or two," he reassured.
When asked if coffee farmers were experiencing a similar fate, Neville Williams, chairman for the Cocoa/Coffee group in Smithville, said the coffee farmers were not experiencing this problem, as despite not having received their last payment, it should be due anytime now, since payouts usually take place shortly after the close of the season in December.
"Normally they get pay little after the season ends, so we expecting to get money for the coffee anytime now," Williams said.
Efforts to get a comment from the Cocoa Industry Board were unsuccessful as several calls made over the course of the last two weeks were not returned up to press time.