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Dominican Cacao Growers Begin Cooperative, Take Control Over Their Community's Fate

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CHOCOLATE COUNTRY

Link TV, one of the nation's largest independent television broadcasters devoted to providing diverse global perspectives on news, current events, and world culture, recently launched ViewChange.org, a new multimedia website (www.ViewChange.org) to spark progress in improving the lives of people in developing countries.

As part of the launch, ViewChange held an online, short film contest focused on stories showing progress in global development. In all, Link TV named six winners out of 136 entries, representing each of the film contest's six categories. Each winner received a category prize of $5,000 and the Grand Prize winner received an additional $25,000. All the winning filmmakers featured here discuss what compelled them to make their films. All the ViewChange films can be viewed here.

Film: Chocolate Country
Category: Empowerment

When I was twenty-four, my parents went off to join the Peace Corps. Yes, I know the situation sounds a bit backwards. They were sent to the northern hills of the Dominican Republic, a region of clapboard shacks and guitar-plucking farmers, and it was on a Christmas visit there that I first encountered the Loma Guaconejo cooperative. The campesinos of the area had decided to stop competing with each other for the measly prices offered by the big cacao buyers, and were now working together to directly market an improved, organic product. Their enthusiasm for what they were doing was contagious and, like many young documentary filmmakers, I hoped I could use storytelling to advance a cause I believed in.

The story I set out to tell was the story of chocolate itself. For consumers in the global economy, the origins of everyday things had become vague and mysterious. I wanted to show city people what a mazorca of cacao looks like when it's cut open to reveal its syrupy white seeds. And I wanted to reveal the faces of the men and women who grow and harvest the ingredients for our chocolate bars. I suppose I hoped that by making the things we use more real, I could encourage North Americans to "vote with their dollars" for better products: chocolate grown by an empowered Dominican cooperative, for instance, rather than by child laborers on an Ivory Coast plantation.

But while being a "conscious consumer" no doubt does some good (or, more accurately, un-does some bad), I'm under no illusion that it's enough. Those of us in the developed North are never going to end poverty by watching socially conscious documentaries while munching Fair Trade candy. If we really want to transform the conditions that maintain human suffering, we'll have to transform ourselves first, to break out of the passive role of consumer and unite with our neighbors to actively engage the forces of history. In other words, we'll have to be more like the members of the Loma Guaconejo cooperative.

I'm thrilled that a short version of Chocolate Country will now be featured on the Viewchange.org website, where new "semantic" web technology will connect viewers with the resources to do more than just view these stories. It's hard to feel empathy for a statistic, and this platform for short films can help turn the abstract problems of the underdeveloped world into memorable people and stories.

While it's important to celebrate solutions that work, I hope the platform will also provide a space for argument and discussion. Producing my latest documentary, Gods and Kings, a film about mass media in the highlands of Guatemala, has made me more aware of the many contradictions and complications of development. In today's global economy, modernization alleviates much physical suffering, but it can also break apart the communities and village traditions that give peoples' lives meaning, and strip subsistence farmers of their autonomy. Isolated and rootless, dependent on others for work, the poor are less able to resist the powerful market forces that seek to exploit them. People always remark at how, despite their poverty, the cacao growers in Chocolate Country seem genuinely happy. I believe they're happy because they're empowered. Working together, they're taking some control over the fate of their community. While I want Loma Guaconejo to grow and change, any development that robs people of this power is not development I can support. We must be careful not to lump all development models under the same banner of "Progress".

In shooting Chocolate Country, my friend and collaborator Carl Wooley perfectly captured the strange beauty of Loma Guaconejo, a rainforest region high above the electrical lines, exhaust fumes and burning plastic of the valley, where time passes differently and work has a different meaning than in the harried, highly structured world that most of us inhabit. I don't mean to slip into pastoral nostalgia or downplay the suffering of the rural poor, but I believe that the life of a campesino is, as one of our subjects put it, "a life that's very good and very bad." My wish for the people of Loma Guaconejo is that they develop in a way that doesn't alleviate the bad by sacrificing what's good: the freedom of working without a plantation or factory boss, the music and stories they have time to create and share, their ties to the land and, most of all, their ties to one another.

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