A story about cocoa doctors – and a few lost surgeons

It is 32 degrees, and the humidity must at least be 70 percent. One minute outside is enough to make you sweat like a waterfall. At this point, we have been outside for 20 minutes and I have started to embrace my state of sweatiness. Or at least, I am trying to, while counting the hours to my next shower. To add to my discomfort: we have just been given plastic gloves and a mask, to protect our skin and lungs from any chemicals. Let me tell you: plastic gloves and sweaty hands are not a charming combination.

UTZ team at the Mars Academy Indonesia, 2015

UTZ team at the Mars Academy Indonesia, 2015

My 8 colleagues and I are guests at the Mars Academy in Tarengge, Sulawesi, Indonesia for a five day training. We are taught about Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) in cocoa farming, such as pruning, fertilization, harvesting, pest & disease control (including spraying), and more. As most of us work in the UTZ office in Amsterdam, this is a wonderful opportunity to get more practical experience in the field, and it surely paid off.

Today’s topic: Pest & Disease Control on cocoa trees, or to be more specific: pesticide spraying. After all the ingredients and water are safely mixed (in an area solely used for this purpose, far from a source of drinking water), our instructor puts on his safety clothes to give us the demonstration we have been waiting for. He was already wearing gloves and a mask. His mask looks like a gas mask, while our masks make us seem to be a bunch of out-of-place surgeons. Our instructor is now adding more layers to his already warm clothes (jeans and long-sleeve shirt): plastic pants, high welly boots, a rain coat, safety goggles, and a hat – over which he puts the hood of his rain coat. With each layer he puts on, my self-pity evaporates.

Pest & Disease Control on cocoa trees

Pest & Disease Control on cocoa trees

So this is what it really means for farmers to safely spray their crop – and they do this between 10 and 22 times per year without missing any of the many layers. For a tropical country like Indonesia with two seasons (basically: hot and dry, or hot and wet), that must not be an easy task. Five minutes in my gloves was enough discomfort to make me truly relieved when I can take them off again – imagine wearing this suit, and spraying your crop, tree for tree, hectare for hectare.

Needless to say, this trip has been truly inspirational for us. Mars has set up their own training program for farmers here in Indonesia: the Cocoa Development Center in Tarengge trains Cocoa Doctors, who will set up a Mars Cocoa Village Center (CVC) in their villages. These cocoa doctors are in turn responsible to share their knowledge and skills with farmers in their villages in order to improve their Good Agricultural Practices: increasing their productivity, yields, and thereby their income. In this respect, there is quite some overlap with the UTZ program, although our Code of Conduct for farmers includes control points on economic, environmental and social criteria that are not part of the Mars program.

For 4,5 days we learned about the importance of soil quality and how to improve it, made compost, sanitized trees (freed them from pests and infections), pruned trees, harvested cocoa pods, visited a Mars Cocoa Buying Station where the beans are sold, learned grafting on a cocoa seedling, and much more.

Anne Manschot, Senior Program and Member Support Coordinator at UTZ

Anne Manschot, Senior Program and Member Support Coordinator at UTZ

This experience has helped us to much better understand the realities on the field and the challenges for farmers – something you can never fully grasp from your desk in our (however beautiful) office in Amsterdam. Take pesticide spraying, for example. Did you know that a farmer loses around 30-50%  of his harvest due to pest and diseases when no control is applied? And around 10% when certain control is applied? This is why UTZ promotes Integrated Pest Management and works closely together with producers to find appropriate alternatives to pest control. Needless to say, part of the deal is that you are only allowed to spray when wearing protective clothing – no matter how uncomfortable they are in the sweltering heat.

October 2015 – Anne Manschot, Senior Program and Member Support Coordinator at UTZ Certified.

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