CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 7. . . .October 18, 2013
The Chocolate Farmer opens with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s prediction: “The end of the human race will be that it will eventually die of civilization.” With the film set in a lush land, a man is seen cutting tropical bush with a machete. His children play near and then in a clear running river. One is naked, and this scene could easily be mistaken for Eden before the Fall. In reality, it is Belize, today. Once part of the Mayan Empire, the land is in the process of being thrust into modern times, and, according to the father, this is not going well.
The Chocolate Farmer looks at the changes in Belize from the father’s point of view and from some of his many children—none of whom have taken to working the farm. He admits, “You don’t make much money, but you can eat and drink from your fruit trees.” He is fully aware of the change happening around him: “We still have a little bit of life around us, but as soon as we miss this, we’ll forget everything.” The land was once reservation land where no one owned any part of it. They worked together, and it was a better time, he feels. A vote was taken, and the people agreed that dividing the land to individual ownership would be the way to go. The father says, “I own nothing [I am] just a traveller”.
One of the father’s sons is the manager of the local cacao growers co-operative. He reflects how cacao beans were once used by the Mayans as currency; now they sell the beans to get currency. Farmers have developed a sense of capitalism. He is in the process of building a new house. Proudly, he points out how the upper part of the house reflects the traditional Mayan style while the main floor is modern. He states that, unlike his father, he is able to cook a meal. He wants his children to be doctors, just like anyone else would. He does not embrace the traditional ways of his father. The father says that, in the past, he was able to get others to help with his planting, and he would reciprocate when asked. However, the concept of communal farming has disappeared since the community voted to divide the reservation into individual lots. Farmers can claim title to the land only after many years of paying a monthly lease to the government of Belize. If they default, and many do going deep into debt, the land goes to the state and is being bought up by foreigners. The father says, “That’s why they messed up my poor people.” Conflicts develop between the locals and the new owners. In one scene, the son is trying to sort out a land dispute between his people and the new owners. He is told, “If you Indians want the land, then you should just pay for it.” “Mayans” says the son, but the foreign owner does not correct himself or apologize. The father says, “We are tied to the land traditionally. Without the land, we will cease to exist.”
Each year, the people gather for the Annual Columbus Day Ceremony. Here, old rituals are celebrated and their Mayan heritage is commemorated. However, this year, his fourth son is hit on the head with a rock during some drunken revelry. The father wishes his son would help him with the clearing of his land, but he never has. He is sorry he ever put his children in school:
The mother, married at 14, has had 15 children and does not want that life for her daughters. One of the daughters wants to study Arts, but she has been told that unless she achieves a certain mark in school, she will not be able to continue. The mother wants her to be able to choose her own life. Her older sister, educated abroad, does not celebrate the traditional ways as they apply to the role of women. She does not share her father’s love of the old ways. She laughs that she is unable to cook, partially because she does not like to, and mostly because she lives so close to her mother that she goes home to eat.
The third son went to university but dropped out after one year because he felt he was too much of a financial burden to his father. He applied for work in the beautiful white sand beach tourist area in Belize, but found nothing. He admits he misses the community and the tight family unit back home, and so he is seen calling home for money so he could return.
Back home, the father tries unsuccessfully to borrow money from his neighbours so his son’s head wound can be treated. The mother is very frustrated: “I don’t know why I had a lot of kids, because I don’t know what to do with them.” And then almost to contradict her statement, the film features a tender look at the family. With a traditional song in the background, viewers see the father playing with a baby while the other children play and food is being prepared, everyone together. There is much love and happiness here, despite what is going on around them.
The father is seen in his rice field. He drops the rice to the ground and buries the grain with his toes. He states, “If I had boots, I couldn’t do this.” He is working his field alone. “In the past, I’d have 14 men here, and we’d plant this field in one day. Now they start to work on their own. They don’t want any community. Everything starts to become mean. Everyone works for himself.”
The younger farmers know that, to be viable, they have to be competitive in a global market: “the old ways are not the way to go.” They are aware of the attraction of capitalism, but believe they will be able to balance that with their traditional ways: “We will prosper and not go for greed.” However, one of the sons admits that he went to school expecting to get a job afterwards. There are few jobs, and poverty is rampant. “Things are changing—traditional food, clothing. Money is bringing about change. It’s not about who you are, but who you want to be.”
The Chocolate Farmer ends back in the lush Eden featured at the beginning. However, nothing good is coming over the horizon. The father is disgusted by the spraying of pesticides used by the modern farmers. He sees it as poisoning the land and the mark of a lazy farmer. His son’s house with the Mayan upper and modern lower architecture was the largest house in the village and was burned down by a jealous villager a week after it was completed. The clear running river is to be dammed for a hydro-electric project and will be destroyed. The chocolate farmer, to make some money, is reduced to showing tourists how the cacao-to-chocolate process works.
The Chocolate Farmer is a powerfully disturbing film. The farmer featured is only one of a whole nation of similar farmers. The traditional ways are being altered, and there is much being lost. However, who can fault the new generation for wanting what the so-called developed world has had for generations? The film would shine in any course dealing with Social Justice, Sociology, Ethics, Globalization, Family Studies, Ecology, Geography—the list goes on. Beautifully filmed, there is value here in Media and Photography as well. Because the farmer is very spiritual in a non-traditional way, the film could be used in both Philosophy and Religion. No answers are given, but the many questions posed would generate interesting discussion in many areas.
Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.