Sao Tome struggles to shake the bitter taste of colonial era | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 18.03.2011
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Sao Tome struggles to shake the bitter taste of colonial era

The African island nation of Sao Tome and Principe used to be one of the most important cocoa exporters in the world. But today, many plantations don't produce at all, and only a few still make a profit.

Different types of cocoa fruit

Cocoa producers are looking to re-invent their flagging trade

Cidade de Sao Tome is the capital of the small island nation of Sao Tome and Principe off the West African coast. People here say life is going "leve-leve" - meaning "easy-easy" or "slowly-slowly." The Ana Chaves Bay, where the town was erected by Portuguese colonists, still shows remnants of days gone by: there are still the same rows of one-storey houses from the colonial era.

Behind the houses looms the jungle of Sao Tome, the Obo. This is where the huge cocoa plantations were founded and brought fame and riches to the islands. Today, visiting the country estates is like a trip to the past.

Independence Day remembered

Shortly after midnight on April 25, 1974, Portuguese radio played the song "Grandola, Vila Morena," the signal for the start of the military uprising against the dictatorial regime of Portugal.

Antonio Bonifacio und Antero Antonio

The island nation used to be one of the biggest cocoa exporters in the world

Eighteen hours later, the dictatorship that lasted half a century came to an end almost without bloodshed. The Portuguese people supported the leaders of the uprising and decorated their guns with flowers. The "Cloves Revolution" began a new era of democracy in Portugal - a year later, in 1975, Sao Tome gained independence.

Antonio Bonifacio, a 55-year-old native of Sao Tome, can still remember when it happened.

"When my Patrao, my boss, heard the news about the freedom of Portugal, he was having dinner. I was there in the dining room, serving him," Bonifacio said. "The radio was on. Both overseers of the plantation, Fonseca and Figueiredo were talking about the news, about the fact that Portugal is free now. And Figueiredo said, well, but that's not going to make a difference for Sao Tome. But on the next day, 24 hours later, we felt the first signs of a revolution here on the islands."

In the last years of the colonial era, Bonifacio worked as a house servant in the main estate at the biggest cocoa plantation in the country: Agostinho Neto, called Rio do Ouro at the time. Now, Bonifacio can't even remember the last time he had a job. His fate is similar to that of many former plantation employees in the nation that used to be the biggest cocoa exporter in the world.

Seizing initiative

Antonio Manuel da Fonseca used to be the head administrator of the Agostinho Neto plantation. He was also the representative of its Portuguese owner, the Marquis of Valle Flor. The marquis owned both Agostinho Neto and the cocoa plantation close by - Diogo Vaz. These two estates have had very different fates since independence.

Cocoa being dried

Cocoa is best dried under the sun

While at Agostinho Neto people are hanging around lethargically, waiting for orders to come in, their colleagues at the Diogo Vaz estate have taken their fate into their own hands by continuing to grow cocoa beans.

The cocoa yields at Diogo Vaz are not nearly as good as they used to be, but the plantation is still producing. In addition to growing cocoa beans, the plantation also buys cocoa from independent farmers in the region.

Decline and decay

After 1975, cocoa production in Sao Tome and Principe fell into a huge crisis. That was mainly due to the fact that the Portuguese administrators, who used to run the plantations, returned to Portugal and left huge gaps in management positions. Historian Carlos Neves said this created many difficulties.

"The Portuguese colonial administrators had unfortunately not passed on much knowledge to the local people," he told Deutsche Welle. "Nobody from Sao Tome had been trained and ready to serve as leaders and administrators - neither at government level, nor in agriculture."

Cocoa fruit in a truck

The cocoa farmers hope to use old methods to reap new rewards

At the same time, the country's debts mounted, and working morale rapidly dropped because people did not earning good wages, and the plantations fell into disuse.

This decay was obvious at the Agostinho Neto. The infrastructure has deteriorated, the buildings have not been repaired, and there has been no electricity for years. The hydro-power plant no longer operated, even though the electricity pylons are still standing. There are thousands of cocoa trees stretching out across the 50 square-kilometers of the plantation. But most cocoa fruit is rotten and covered with mould.

Hope remains

In 1975, Sao Tome and Principe exported 12,000 tons of cocoa, in 2009, it was less than 2,000 tons. But the example of Diogo Vaz shows that some islanders have not given up hope. Despite the crisis, they are convinced they can live on cocoa revenues. Even though they're not producing the same quantities as they used to, the workers here are focusing on employing traditional processing methods, which were responsible for the good reputation of Sao Tome cocoa in the first place.

The plantation exports its cocoa beans to Portugal. From there, they are sold to the Netherlands, where they are made into high-quality chocolate.

At the Diogo Vaz plantation, people are thinking ahead - apart from cocoa beans, they also want to cultivate vanilla and maybe pepper in the future. Like cocoa, both are indigenous to the islands - and they sell well in Europe.

Authors: Sergio Nunes, Marta Barroso / bk

Editor: Sean Sinico

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