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Venezuela cocoa growers fear new pest: the government

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SAN JOSE DE BARLOVENTO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Venezuela cocoa trader Freddy Galindo has battled highway robberies, kidnappings of family members and declining quality in his 19 years exporting the nation’s legendary beans.

This year’s harvest brought a new worry: meddling by the socialist government.

He said trucks filled with beans leaving his warehouse in central Venezuela were stopped by soldiers at checkpoints and held for days; drivers were forced to unload some cargos at government warehouses. Galindo claims that some 87 tonnes of his cocoa, worth about $130,000, were missing when the trucks were finally released.

Other traders here in Miranda state, Venezuela’s No. 2 producing region, have reported similar delays and confiscations in recent months.

Government officials say the checkpoints are meant to nab cocoa thieves, and that some beans have been seized by the state to settle owners’ delinquent tax bills.

But the confrontations have unnerved growers and traders who fear their industry is being targeted for a government takeover.

Officials are “putting pressure on private businesses to deliver them goods at no cost,” said Galindo, owner of Comercializadora Freyra in the hamlet of San Jose de Barlovento, as workers around him packed dry, reddish brown cocoa beans into burlap sacks. He said he was given no explanation for the seizure of his cocoa.

Nationalization has crippled Venezuela’s oil and manufacturing sectors as well as agricultural industries including coffee and sugar.

The private sector still controls most of the cocoa trade. But with crude output collapsing amid an economic crisis, the government has increased its emphasis on alternative export industries such as cocoa and gold.

Miranda state this year established a government-run company where farmers can sell their beans for export. It has exported 500 tonnes of cocoa so far, according to Miranda Governor Hector Rodriguez, around 5 percent of the country’s annual exports.

While state officials have not forced local cocoa growers to use its organization, many here fear the government’s entry into their industry is a preview of things to come.

Workers sieve dried cocoa beans at a warehouse of cocoa trader Freddy Galindo in Barlovento, Venezuela November 21, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

“It will be like sugar cane. They expropriated everything, and nowadays there is no sugar,” said Freddy Padron, 50, who farms cocoa on an 11-hectare (27-acre) plot near San Jose. “All of this is at risk now.”

‘VERY SCARED’

Venezuela has been producing cocoa since the Spanish colonial era. It is a tiny player, exporting between 8,000 to 10,000 tonnes per year, a fraction of big producers such as Ivory Coast and Ghana. Still, Venezuela’s beans are prized by chocolate makers from Japan to Switzerland as some of the best in the world. Local artisans are confronting Venezuela’s economic crisis by making gourmet chocolate bars that can sell for $10 each abroad.

Despite that stellar reputation, some chocolate makers have cut back their purchases of Venezuelan cocoa in recent years.

Delays in export permits have stalled shipments, forcing buyers to go elsewhere. Quality has suffered too. Venezuela’s strict currency controls have prevented many farmers from getting imported chemicals they need to fight disease. Wary of thieves, many growers have abandoned the flavor-enhancing practice of laying harvested beans out to dry and ferment.

“That processing is as much an art as making the final product. It is a very sad situation,” said Gary Guittard, president and chief executive of Guittard Chocolate Company in Burlingame, California. He said he has reduced purchases of Venezuelan cocoa because of the dearth of top-grade beans.

The quality slide is reflected in prices. A decade ago, Venezuelan cocoa fetched 36 percent more than beans from top-producer Ivory Coast, U.S. trade data show. That premium was just 6 percent in the first eight months of 2018. Unwanted Venezuelan cocoa is piling up at warehouses, said a European trader who requested anonymity.

Miranda state’s Rodriguez, an ally of President Nicolas Maduro, says he has devised a plan to revive the sector. Among his initiatives: establishment of the state-run Miranda Cocoa Corporation to generate export revenue.

In an interview with Reuters at his office in the capital Caracas, Rodriguez said the plan aimed to improve security for growers and help them boost quality. He said revenue from cocoa sales is financing technical training for producers as well as patrol cars to help police deter thieves.

He acknowledged the detention of cocoa in transit was cumbersome for traders, but said it was necessary to prevent gangs from trafficking in stolen cocoa. The state only took beans from traders who had tax debt, he said, adding that initial misunderstandings have been worked out.

Rodriguez said much of the fear among traders and growers stems from a change in the governor’s mansion. His predecessor was prominent two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles.

Slideshow (9 Images)

“They were used to a different government that did not get involved,” Rodriguez said. “And then along comes a Chavista governor, and they all said, ‘They’re going to expropriate us, they’re going to get rid of us.’ They were very scared.”

With the heavy harvest months of February and March fast approaching, industry players say the government has not clarified its approach. Trader Galindo is playing it safe.

“Right now we are waiting,” he said. “We do not want to buy because we do not know what is coming next.”

Reporting by Luc Cohen in San Jose de Barlovento; Additional reporting by Mayela Armas in Caracas; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Marla Dickerson

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Ottawa education workers still teaching special-ed students at schools want safety checks

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Some Ottawa educators say they are concerned about the safety of classrooms that remain open in schools for special-education students.

Ontario elementary and secondary students have been sent home to study virtually because of the dangers posed by rising rates of COVID-19. However, special-education classes are still operating at many bricks-and-mortar schools.

The special-education classes include students with physical and developmental disabilities, autism and behaviour problems. Some don’t wear masks and require close physical care.

Two unions representing teachers and educational assistants at the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board have sent letters to Ottawa Public Health expressing their concerns.

It’s urgent that public health officials inspect classrooms to assess the safety of the special-ed classes, said a letter from the Ottawa branch of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which also represents the educational assistants who work with special-needs children.

“In the absence of reasons based on medical evidence to keep specialized systems classes open, we are unsure as to the safety of staff and students in these programs,” said the letter signed by president Stephanie Kirkey and other union executives.

The letter said staff agreed that students in specialized classes had difficulty with remote education and benefited most from in-person instruction.

“Our members care deeply about the students they work with and are not only concerned about their own health and safety, but also about that of their students, as they are often unable to abide by COVID safety protocols that include masking, physical distancing and hand hygiene, thus making it more likely that they could transmit the virus to one another,” the letter said.

The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board has 1,286 elementary and secondary students in special-education classes attending in person at 87 schools, said spokesperson Darcy Knoll.

While final numbers were not available, Knoll said the board believed a large number of the special-education students were back in class on Friday at schools.

In-person classes for other elementary and secondary students are scheduled to resume Jan. 25.

The school boards provide PPE for educators in special-education classes as required, including surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

Several educators interviewed said they don’t understand why it has been deemed unsafe for students in mainstream classes to attend class, but not special-ed students.

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Ottawa sets record of 210 new COVID-19 cases following lag in data reporting

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Ottawa has now broken its daily record for new COVID-19 cases twice in 2021, with 210 new cases added on Friday amid a lag in data reports from earlier in the week.

The nation’s capital has now seen 10,960 cases of the novel coronavirus.

Ottawa Public Health’s COVID-19 dashboard reports 977 active cases of the virus in Ottawa, a jump of more than 100 over Thursday’s figures.

One additional person has died in relation to COVID-19 in Ottawa, raising the city’s death toll in the pandemic to 395.

The record-setting case count comes a day after Ottawa reported a relatively low increase of 68 cases. Ontario’s COVID-19 system had meanwhile reported 164 new cases on Thursday.

OPH said Thursday that due to a large number of case reports coming in late Wednesday, the local system did not account for a large portion of cases. The health unit said it expects the discrepancy to be filled in the subsequent days.

Taken together, Thursday and Friday’s reports add 278 cases to Ottawa’s total, a daily average of 139 cases.

The new single-day record surpasses a benchmark set this past Sunday, when the city recorded 184 new cases.

Ontario also reported a new record of 4,249 cases on Friday, with roughly 450 of those cases added due to a lag in reporting in Toronto.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 also continues to climb in Ottawa. OPH’s dashboard shows there are currently 24 people in hospital with COVID-19, seven of whom are in the intensive care unit.

Three new coronavirus outbreaks were added to OPH’s dashboard on Friday. One outbreak affects a local shelter where one resident has tested positive for the virus, while the other two are traced to workplaces and private settings in the community.

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Ottawa family dealing with mould issue in apartment grateful for support

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OTTAWA — An Ottawa family, who has been dealing with mould in their south Ottawa apartment, is grateful for the support they have received from the community.

“I would like to say big very mighty, big thank you to everyone,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

Adeniyi lives with her three sons in a South Keys apartment. Her son Desmond turned to social media on Sunday to seek help for the family, saying they’ve been dealing with mould in their unit and it has taken too long to fix.

“I see my mom go through a struggle everyday; with three kids, it’s not easy,” says 16-year-old Desmond Adeniyi.

He setup a GoFundMe page to help the family raise money to move out. After gaining online attention and the story, which originally aired CTV News Ottawa on Tuesday, they have been able to raise over $30,000.

“Yes! I was surprised, a big surprise!” says Nofisat Adeniyi, “We are free from the mess that we’ve been going through.”

The family was so touched, they decided to pay it forward and donated $5,000 to another family in need, “A lady my son told me about,” says Nofisat Adeniyi.

The recipient wants to remain anonymous, but when she found out from Adeniyi, “She was crying, she has three kids; I remember when I was, I can feel what she’s feeling – because I was once in those shoes.”

CTV News Ottawa did reach out to the property management company for an update on the mould. In a statement on Wednesday, a spokesperson for COGIR Realty wrote:

“We respect the privacy of our residents and are unable to disclose any specific information regarding any of our residents. We can, however, let you know that we are working with the residents and are making every effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible,” said Cogir Real Estate

The giving did not stop at just cash donations. “When I saw the segment, the thing that struck me the most was how easily the situation can be resolved,” says mould removal expert Charlie Leduc with Mold Busters in Ottawa.

Leduc is not involved in the case, but appeared in the original story, and after seeing the mould on TV wanted to help.

“This isn’t something that we typically do, but given the circumstance and given the fact that this has gone on way too long, our company is willing to go in and do this work for free,” said Leduc.

The Adeniyi family may now have some options, and are grateful to the community for the support.

“Yes, It’s great news — you can see me smiling,” says Nofisat.

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