Field Course Installs Solar Panels at the Bunkhouse


This summer professors and students from three different technical colleges installed solar panels on top of the bunkhouse at the field station as part of a field course.  Joel Shoemaker of Madison College, Chris Miller of Heartland Community College, and Sarah Hawkins of Lakeshore Technical College led the course.

Sarah, Joel and Chris knew each other from all being involved in a grant to expand study abroad at two-year colleges. Sarah knew colleagues at her school who had gone to BFREE and heard the field station was running off of solar energy. Sarah and Joel then went down to BFREE to check out the field station and a year later they had a class planned to install a new system at the bunkhouse.

Sarah brought her student, Shannon McCabe; Joel brought three students, Omar Zguerdoufi, Josh Stern and Tyler Anderson; and Chris brought his student, Lori Estrada.

The Photo Voltaic panels used on the bunkhouse were previously installed at Madison College, but had been blown down in a storm and were later donated. Charge controllers, LED lighting, wiring and batteries were among the other items donated by Joel and Chris.

Though the instructors may have brought most of the supplies, the students, said Chris, did all of the work.

solar-panel-1-for-web“The mission is to put what we learn in the classroom into operation,” he said.

All of the instructors said they hoped their students would learn to be self-reliant and gain confidence by doing an install in an environment with limited resources.

“If something is missing or broken, you would have just bought a new piece,” said Sarah. “But here, you need to problem solve on the spot. For example, when the generator broke instead of going out to get a new one, Tyler took the whole thing apart and fixed it.”

Students not only had to be quick on their feet, they also had to think ahead.

“In order to do this, we would have to plan very well and make sure we had all of our parts and pieces,” said Joel.  “I wanted our students to experience the process of really thinking through everything they were doing and figuring out how to deal with whatever limitations were around them.”

solar-panel-3-for-webChris and Joel also wanted their students to get the experience of installing a solar system that would be the main source of power. Unlike in the US where these systems usually function as a secondary source, the system on the bunkhouse would be the sole source of energy.

In addition to all working together as a team, the students also learned a lot from BFREE manager, Marcelino. They admired his work ethic, Sarah said, and it was great for the students to get to know a local Belizean outside of the tourist/host relationship and as part of an everyday work context with the goal of completely a job together.

Before the new install the bunkhouse only had D/C indoor lights with no outlets and the picnic tables outside of the bunkhouse did not have any lighting at all. The system inside was often unreliable with students having to fumble around after dark.

Now the bunkhouse is equipped with stable lighting, outlets for students to charge phones and laptops and lighting for the outdoor picnic tables.

In 10 days the group was able to complete the bunkhouse install as well as another install of solar energy on the community center in the Golden Stream Village.



A Bird-Friendly Chocolate Forest in the Making


Using Belikin Boxes

The Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry Restoration Program (BCARP) has made great strides in the past couple of months. On August 12, 2013, BFREE provided a half-day forest/farm preparation workshop as part of the continued agroforestry training for farmers participating in the project. This workshop, organized by Jacob Marlin and William Garcia of BFREE, was presented by Christopher Nesbitt of Maya Mountain Research Farm. Seventeen farmers and day laborers participated. The training focused on preparing forested and farm areas in the Trio agricultural area adjacent to BFREE property, for planting cacao saplings, identifying beneficial canopy species in the existing plots, and recommending canopy species for inter-planting. Smaller fruiting species were recommended to provide both short-term yield and soil supplementation over the next five years while the cacao trees mature. Larger timber species were recommended to provide more substantial shade and to offer the long-term benefit of financial return in twenty to twenty-five years. It is our hope that by encouraging a variety of species in the forested farm areas the farmers will have a diversity of goods to offer and will extend their growing season while also providing habitat to a diversity of wildlife, including migratory birds that spend the summers in the USA.

Project coordinator, William Garcia, managed the five days of farm preparation and planting that followed. A total of 10,000 cacao saplings were planted on 26 acres across the three participating farms. Thanks to the BCARP farmers who have dedicated their land, time and energy to this project: Maria Antonia Perez, Anecleto Garcia, Adelso Garcia and their families. Their patience, hard work and dedication have allowed the project to take shape and we look forward to continued partnership with them and additional farmers in the coming years.

BFREE has become aware since the project’s inception in late 2012, and particularly over the past couple of months, that many farmers are very interested in producing organic shade-grown cacao in their farms, and have recognized this as a new and innovative type of farming practice that will benefit not only their economic status, but will also create a healthier environment to live. BFREE is proud to play a role in helping Belizeans become better stewards of their land.


Moving trees.


Nursery before planting.


Nursery before planting.


Carrying trees in.


BFREE – In Print

A necessary part of conservation work is getting the word out. We’ve made concerted efforts this summer to share BFREE’s conservation initiatives – both by delivering talks at conferences and other forums and by producing short articles. Many of you have seen some of our articles posted on Facebook and BFREE’s Jungle Blog. For those who haven’t – here are the highlights.

The Bladen Review was printed in July representing the first publication of what is planned to become BFREE’s annual magazine; Turtle Survival Alliance included Jacob Marlin’s article on the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center in their magazine, Turtle Survival; and BFREE circulated a press release to update Belizeans and the international conservation community about the discovery of two new Harpy Eagle nests in the protected areas of southern Belize – the press release has been picked up by numerous online and print news venues, including Wingspan (a monthly publication of the Raptor Research Foundation) and Amandala (a newspaper in Belize).

From Grower to Market: Investigating the Cacao Value Chain

Gentry Mander picking cacao in Belize.

Gentry Mander picking cacao.

I first worked with BFREE and the Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry Restoration Project (BCARP) through the University of Florida Levin College of Law’s Conservation Clinic. However, it was not until I went to Belize as a part of UF Law’s sustainable development field course that I began to fully appreciate the scope of the project. While visiting the cacao nursery in Trio, Jacob mentioned the need for graduate research. My ears perked up at the opportunity to return to Belize. In addition to my law studies, I am also a Master’s student in UF’s Sustainable Development Practice (MDP) program.  As a part of its curriculum, the MDP program requires its students to conduct a field practicum.  Prior to seeing BFREE’s work in person, I was struggling to define my practicum.  I was seeking a practicum that allowed me to utilize the interdisciplinary nature of my studies, while taking an active role in a project that emphasized the relationship between people and the environment. I finally realized that BFREE presented me that opportunity.  In the last hours of the field course trip, Heather, Jacob, my professors, and I started designing a practicum project that furthered the goals of BCARP.

The result of those designs was a 10-week investigation of the cacao value chain in Belize.  The purpose was to identify constraints and opportunities along the value chain to allow Trio farmers to make informed market decisions for their future crops.  From my base in Punta Gorda, I researched the inner workings of the Belizean cacao industry.  I interviewed many key actors, including representatives from the Toledo Cacao Growers’ Association, Maya Mountain Cacao, Cotton Tree Chocolate, Ixcacao Chocolate, Kakaw Chocolate, Ya’axche Conservation Trust, Sustainable Harvest International, and Belcampo Lodge, among others.  Through these interviews, I began to piece together a model for how cacao makes its way from the farms to the supermarket.

Elmer Tzalam

Elmer Tzalam

I also interviewed a number of local farmers.  With Elmer Tzalam as my guide and interpreter, I traipsed through communities including Indian Creek and San Miguel, interviewing Mayan cacao farmers about their experiences.  We discussed farming, post-harvest processing, and their personal experiences with the market.  These interviews allowed me to trace cacao prices through the chain, illuminating the costs associated with farming, processing, and exportation.  These interviews helped me identify the risks, difficulties, and opportunities present in the cacao industry.

My project continues to explore new opportunities for farmers. In the event that the Trio farmers opt not to employ existing markets, I am using the contextual information I obtained to develop a proposal for cacao export in partnership with an American chocolate producer. By utilizing true vertical coordination with a dedicated and trusted buyer, Trio farmers can receive the best price and incentive for their environmentally-friendly cacao. At the same time, their American partner can tout the organic, shade-grown, bird-friendly product to specialized markets. Ultimately, this would restore and conserve more rainforest, while providing farmers with valuable livelihoods and unique partnership opportunities.