More than just a chocolate company

More than just a chocolate company
September 5, 2020 NDT

Imagining a Post-Colonial Economy with Gillian Goddard, while Biting into a Fruity Trinitario Chocolate Bar. – Article by Katrin Deeg with interview extracts by Gillian Goddard of The Alliance of Rural Communities, September 2020

Four years and dozens of products after New Dawn Traders first chocolate bar collaboration, Alex Geldenhuys revisited the idea of sailing cocoa beans across the Atlantic. Back in 2015 New Dawn Traders and Chocolarder chocolate makers worked together to produce a batch of bars made with cocoa beans sailed from the Dominican Republic by the Fair Transport Company. Those of you who tried that bar may also remember the popular Tres Hombres rum that blessed the English coasts on the same journey.

This time around Alex had her eye on Trinidad. Gillian Goddard of The Alliance of Rural Communities and the New Dawn Traders team exchanged emails for 8 years before finally meeting face to face in January 2020. A perfect match, you could say. Each woman is as passionate about celebrating quality products with low ecological impact as the other.

Gillian co-founded The Alliance of Rural Communities and is today one of several active directors, working primarily to promote The Alliance’s products over a wider distance.

The Alliance, a multi-faceted network of rural communities throughout the Caribbean, supports rural cocoa bean farming throughout Trinidad and Tobago and promotes the islands’ cocoa products as far as the USA. Go online and you will find their Zero Waste shop and regional food delivery service in Trinidad, supplying Trinitarios with, for a start, organic veg boxes, beef pastilles, frozen dasheen, bottled pineapple concentrate, and baking kits for cassava brownies.

Trinidad is the larger and more southerly island of the Trinidad and Tobago duo, its high hills sitting a mere 11 kilometres off the Venezuelan coast. Trinidad is also the home of the Trinitario cocoa bean. Sought after for it’s flavour, this bean is held in high regard by chocolate makers around the world.

Think red fruits, citrus and mango. “A more unusual flavour,” describes Alex Geldenhuys. “It’s not the straight-forward, childhood memory of chocolate. It’s got a more interesting, surprising flavour.”

Gillian and her network of cocoa bean growers sourced 200 kilos of these prized brown nuggets for New Dawn Traders. Depending on the time of the year, The Alliance sources beans from various places on the island, though the beans used in the New Dawn Chocolate 70% Trinitario bar specifically hail from the central range of Trinidad.

Transporting cocoa beans by ship has proven to be a tricky feat, one’s main adversary being moisture and condensation. Easier said than done on a ship! The skilled De Gallant crew, of the Blue Schooner Company, were up for it. In January of 2020, De Gallant docked up in Chaguaramas, Trinidad. The crew loaded the beans onto the ship, packing the plastic and burlap sacks tightly enough to minimise temperature changes and reduce airflow, though with just enough space for the beans to breathe. After a 3 month crossing, the sacks were unloaded in Cornwall, delivered to the skilled team of chocolate makers in Falmouth and turned into 3000 New Dawn Chocolate 70% Trinitario bars.

Gillian Goddard wants you to know, however, that ARC is more than just a chocolate company. 

“We are not just a veg box company either. You know, here in Trinidad, we are a post-colonial society. Communities here have been left in a post-colonial state. This means fewer resources. This means unsuitable educational, religious and food systems. 

“We started The Alliance of Rural Communities as an NGO to help create a version of what a new economy could look like, around food and around community. Part of the goal of our organisation is to create a new system that works for us. We do emotional literacy work, we do training for young people, we talk about issues of race, class, gender, and give support where it’s needed.

“We soon realised we also needed to create a limited company to facilitate financial transactions, distribution and procurement. This helps the isolated communities here work on an economy of scale. ARC Ltd buys all the labels, all the wrappers, supports common branding, thinks through issues of quality, and issues of training collectively. 

“A lot of our focus is actually supporting the lives of non-human beings, so we also have a conservation NGO called ARC Conservation. We want to make sure we are giving other beings a voice through the choices that we make in our food production and life-styles. We see this in the way that we don’t use chemicals when planting our produce and the fact that we don’t use plastic in our veg boxes or in our chocolate packaging. We make a lot of choices based on a desire to provide advocacy for other life-forms. 

“In The Alliance’s own words, “We seek to support and develop financially independent, community-owned chocolate businesses & affiliated projects using rural resources, labour & creativity.” 

“So, ARC is not just a chocolate company. We’re more interested in systemic change.”

Forever a keen observer of nature, Gillian absorbs life lessons from the hills and canopies spreading around her in Trinidad with ease and familiarity. Forests, in particular, have inspired Gillian and ARC to build a resilient and diverse alliance.

“The forest usually has a very complex biodiverse, polyculture system. We see multiple different species, every niche occupied. That’s a healthy forest. When we say that ARC ”models a forest” we mean that the forest is our teacher. 

“By imitating forest systems, it means that even if we don’t have an academic background, [we can understand complex, “human” ideas]. So, for instance, my son is big into economics. He will tell me the names of economic writers and economic theories. I don’t know those things, but I could look at the forest and see the forest as a model of economics, science and communication.

“Resources in a forest are recycled, there’s a circular economy. I first saw the principles of a circular economy in the forest. It’s not a completely closed system; the watershed also communicates with other watersheds, goes into the sea. So there is the movement of components of the forest. It’s not a static, self-contained system. Waste is utilised by other layers of the system and there is cycling of nutrients. That’s like the money of the forest. And the fungi is the internet because it communicates over long distances over a short space of time. “

COVID posed an inconvenience for Gillian and The Alliance’s work, but certainly not a deterrent. 

“The first few weeks we had to make the decision to stop chocolate production. The stores at the time didn’t know as much about COVID, we didn’t know as much about transmissibility. So we stopped doing deliveries, farmers markets and events. And all of those stopped. 

“Things are very unpredictable here, even before COVID. We always say within ARC, that for any task or job you need to have 3 replacements. If we have somebody who is packing boxes, we need to have a few other people who know how to pack boxes. It’s not like the UK where people’s lives are much more predictable, where the national infrastructure is much more reliable.

“I think diversity saved us. Diversity of the vision. When one thing is dormant, something else can spring up. Like, when a fire comes through a forest, part of the forest system dies but the rest of the system is poised to be able to cope with it. A forest doesn’t die every winter; in the wintertime when resources stop moving as much, the forest has things in place to cope with that. A forest doesn’t really set up a system for only one thing to thrive; there has to be a way for the circumstances to change all the time. 

“At ARC we always ensure that there are feedback loops that can allow us to go in a different direction. We have been thinking and talking that way for a few years. So, with COVID at manageable levels, our systems [to respond and keep going] were already there. We just had to move forward, we couldn’t get paralysed.”

It also probably doesn’t hurt that Gillian is a self-proclaimed “post-apocalyptic survivalist kind.”  

Gillian lived in Trinidad until the age of 17 before moving north to the US. 

“We have a severe brain drain in Trinidad. A lot of people move from here. So, most of my family moved to the US. The immigrant experience. When I was the first growing up my dad worked for the airline so we could fly for free. We used to go up there for some months. Those days my grandmother lived in Washington DC and I would go up there to visit her and my two aunts. I also had a bunch of relatives in the Caribbean part of Brooklyn so we used to go there. 

“As an adult, between stints in Atlanta, Washington DC, California and 2 years roaming the states in an RV with her children, Gillian returned to Trinidad to start the island’s first organic shop. In 2008 she began hearing about something called “sail cargo.” 

How can international sail cargo fit into a resilient food system in Trinidad, or the Caribean at large, while also espousing the values of local and regional products? Gillian’s forest analogy comes in handy once again. 

“It’s inevitable. In a forest system, resources come from outside. There is rain coming from outside. There are migratory birds; they maybe will nest in one place in a certain zone but they go to another forest to spend the rest of their lives. So there is communication across distance. 

“To me, that’s what transport is. And sail cargo is one form of it. We have held ourselves back for years because I in particular did not want to ship with fossil fuels. So sail cargo kind of has to fit in. 

“Maybe today, ARC is like a pioneer species of a forest. Pioneer species come in after damage, create the condition for the more long-lived trees. They provide shade for the seedlings to come.”


Photographs: Trinidad – David Geoffroin / product shot – James Bannister

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