Meet BFREE’s Newest Fellow, Mark Canti

Mark Canti in BFREE’s Cacao Nursery, August 2021

A Little About Me
I was born in a subtropical climate during the rainy season in my native village of Golden Stream. It is located along the main highway, a couple of miles south of the BFREE junction. I do not remember much of my childhood, but I sure remembered how much my parents loved, cared, and supported me throughout my childhood. I attended primary school graduating as a salutatorian. I moved on to high school with a mindset of “Oh, I’m just gonna do whatever.” I wasn’t involved in anything. After graduating from high school, I wasn’t planning on going to college, so I stayed home doing chores and other temporary jobs such as construction, woodwork, and maintenance. Over that period of time, I attended summer camps with Ya’axche Conservation Trust, whereby I first started to develop a sense of interest in nature.

The following year I applied to Independence Junior College, majoring in Natural Resource Management (NRM). It took me a little while to commit myself to education but, once I did, I was invested despite the lack of internet access and technology at home. While attending college, I became extremely involved on campus by volunteering to plant trees and attending clean-up campaigns with non-governmental organizations like the Toledo Institute for Development and Environment (TIDE) and Oceana.

Most of my favorite hobbies are related to the life of an environmentalist. I like nature walks, night hikes, mountain climbing, canoeing, traveling, photography, and snorkeling. Soccer is my favorite sport simply because it helps me stay active, allows me to socialize, and for the most part, it assists me in clearing out stress. I’m an easy-going individual who is focused on conserving the environment and developing advanced photography skills.

First Memory of BFREE
My first memory of BFREE was one and a half decades ago when I was a kid attending primary school. I remembered coming to BFREE on an educational school trip where I first witnessed Mr. Jacob Marlin display an amazing activity where he captured a venomous snake called a fer-de-lance. He was so generous that he gave us the experience of touching the snake, which is impossible for a child to do on its own. That was one of the greatest experiences I have had as a child.

Another Visit to BFREE during College
During my years of study at Independence Junior College, I never imagined I would be working for BFREE one day. Not that I wasn’t interested, of course, I always thought about it during the final days of the last semester at IJC. What really motivated me was attending a school trip here at BFREE, whereby a sensational occurrence happened. Guess what? We were the first set of IJC students to get the opportunity to see the Harpy Eagle with our sharp, naked eyes. So that wonderful experience made me curious and more interested in wanting to work and join the BFREE family to help support mother nature.

Over the Next Two Tears
One of the things I have noticed about BFREE is that it has been providing opportunities for the Fellows to improve their writing skills by allowing them to participate in helping write reports and grants. This is interesting to me. I am also interested in working with researchers, which allows the Fellows to meet new people while also learning advanced research assessment skills, which could be useful both for the organization and a Fellow’s own career.

What I like About Cacao-Agroforestry
With cacao-agroforestry, I’m most interested in how interplanting cacao trees, along with shade trees that bear fruit and other hardwood trees, attracts different species of birds and other animals. Programs like this, which seek to regenerate the rainforest, are both beneficial to our well-being and also to the environment. Healthy forests provide us with cleaner air and also, ultimately, prevent animal species from going extinct. Separately, the program also allowed me to unlock a skill of mine I never knew I had, which is grafting cacao trees.

First BFREE Cacao Fellow Completes Program!

BFREE Staff celebrate Lenardo’s last day as the Cacao Fellow on Thursday, August 19th.

BFREE’s first Cacao Fellow, Lenardo “Leo” Ash, is graduating from his two-year work-training program this week. He will immediately begin studies at the University of Belize, where he will work toward his Bachelor of Science in Natural Resource Management. Lenardo began his Fellowship in July 2019 under the mentorship of Cacao Program Director, Erick Ac. He spent the remainder of that year “learning by doing” and was completely immersed in all things cacao agroforestry. By early 2020, Leo was well-versed enough on the topic that he was able to start co-presenting to BFREE’s visiting students and researchers.

In March 2020, the COVID-pandemic closed BFREE to visitors and a by-product was the uncertainty of the continued employment of all of BFREE staff. When land borders closed, Erick Ac was no longer able to travel from Guatemala to Belize to oversee the cacao program. Unfortunately, the academic components of Leo’s program fell to the wayside for a while as BFREE’s administrative staff focused energy on ensuring the safety of the BFREE staff and finding the financial means to keep as many people employed as possible.

In spite of the lost opportunities for his professional development including canceled travel plans, research projects, and conferences, Lenardo showed great determination in maintaining his path toward personal and professional growth. Lenardo began practicing Spanish during virtual weekly meetings with Erick, he birded with other BFREE staff, and he participated in Herpetology 101 learning the Scientific names of all the turtle and lizard species on the reserve. He asked for reading assignments to expand his knowledge on cacao and agroforestry and eagerly accepted any opportunities to give virtual presentations to BFREE audiences.

Because of his strong interest in photography, Lenardo began photographing birds and other wildlife around the property. Last July, he spotted a ten-foot boa constrictor attacking a turkey vulture and immediately ran to get a camera and to notify other staff. Images and videos that Leo took of the predation event helped provide details for a scientific article, which will be published in the September 2021 issue of the Journal of Raptor Research.

Earlier this year, Lenardo was invited to be a part of a research team hired by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. Along with researchers from all over the world, Lenardo spent nearly six months compiling a literature review that explored cacao genetics across the globe.

Lenardo has never given up his dream of continuing his education beyond his Associate’s Degree, so he applied to the University of Belize and was accepted for August 2021 admission. Although, we are sad to lose such a valuable team member, we are excited about Lenardo’s bright future and can’t wait to see where his journey will take him.

Platt, S.G., Barrett, H.A., Ash, L., Marlin, J.A., Boylan, S.M. and Rainwater, T.R. Predation on Turkey Vultures (Cathartes aura): A New Observation and Review, Journal of Raptor Research. Vol. 55(3), September 2021. Pp. TBD

Restore Our Earth — Happy Earth Day!

The Bladen River at BFREE. Photo by Head Ranger, Sipriano Canti

Today marks what is now the most widely observed secular holiday across the globe, Earth Day! Celebrated April 22nd annually, organizations and individuals come together to demonstrate support for environmental protection. This year’s earthday.org theme is “Restore Our Earth.” The theme rejects the notion that mitigation or adaptation are the only ways to address climate change but that it is up to every one of us to Restore Our Earth. 

“Restore” is not a new theme for us at BFREE; in fact, it is a significant theme to all that we do. 

Restoring tropical rainforest. Our cacao-based agroforestry program was created as a strategy to conserve and restore tropical rainforests in Belize. 

Restoring watersheds. BFREE has partnered with the Monkey River Watershed Association working to conserve and restore the integrity of the entire Monkey River Watershed. 

Restoring habitats. Through extensive management and protection of the BFREE reserve, our rangers are restoring habitats to ensure BFREE remains a hotspot for biodiversity. 

Restoring wildlife. Our Hicatee Conservation and Research Center is restoring local populations through captive-breeding and release programs. 

Our success in restoring wildlife and wildlands is because of our relentless stewardship, innovative strategies, and your support. As we celebrate our 25th Earth Day at BFREE this year, we know that there is still plenty of work to be done – but together, we can Restore Our Earth. 

Happy Earth Day! 

BFREE Fellows Participate in Ranger Weekend

BFREE’s Science and Education Fellowship program is a two-year immersive training opportunity for recent Belizean junior college graduates who exhibit leadership potential combined and a clear interest in the conservation of the country’s natural resources. Each Fellows are assigned one of three focal areas based on their interest and experience, Wildlife conservation – Hicatee Conservation, Sustainable Agriculture – Cacao Agroforestry or Protected Areas.


Lenardo Ash (Sustainable Agriculture/Cacao Agroforestry) and Jonathan Dubon (Wildlife Conservation/Hicatee Conservation) are BFREE’s current fellows and have been learning a lot in their focal area. They also have the opportunity to take place in unique professional development opportunities during their two years. This may include trainings, conference attendance, presenting information to groups, and various field experiences.


With strict restrictions due to the pandemic, there were few opportunities for Fellows to travel during 2020. We decided to start the new year off in 2021 by creating training opportunities right here at BFREE. Lenardo and Jonathan joined BFREE Park Rangers, Sipriano Canti and Apolonio Pop for a ranger training weekend. Friday afternoon, the team hiked to their camp spot about two miles from the main facilities. They set up camp and then immediately went to deploy camera traps in the area. The weekend was spent exploring the properties’ many trails while monitoring camera traps and searching for tracks and other signs of wildlife along the way.


The Fellows learned the basics of surviving in the jungle with skills like building a fire and locating water vines. Canti described traditional uses of plants and trees found along the way. The team also updated and posted Private Property signs throughout the area. They explored creeks and lagoons in the area while discovering the many types of habitat that exist within the BFREE property.

BFREE Fellow, Jonathan Dubon during the Ranger Weekend in January 2021.

Some highlights for Jonathan were visiting a pretty lagoon where they saw an Agami Heron. Canti named it “Live Lagoon” because of the little spring that supplies the lagoon with fresh water. Jonathan was also excited to capture an image of a male Tapir on one of the camera traps they set. Volunteers and interns have always loved Ranger Weekends at BFREE, and we are excited to extend this opportunity to BFREE Fellows for the coming years!


Pale-billed Woodpecker Sighting

Gato Pop taking a photo of the Pale-billed woodpecker at BFREE.

Liberato (Gato) Pop was a BFREE Avian Technician from 2006 – 2013. He began working with us when he was just 16 years old as a member of the Harpy Eagle research team. Gato now works as a Park Ranger for TIDE but continues to do contract work with us from time to time. He regularly helps teach field courses and he also documents our resident and migrant birds.

This month, he began a monitoring project to document which birds utilize the young cacao agroforest. Our intention is for him to continue to collect data in coming years, so that we can understand how the bird population changes over time.

Gato’s visit in February was his first time to BFREE since early 2020. The first bird he noticed was a Pale-billed Woodpecker, which, while a wonderful, resident bird, is not an unusual sight. Still, he was thrilled and immediately searched with his binoculars for a band on the bird’s leg. He located the band and began taking photos to document this finding. This bird, he explained, was the only Pale-billed Woodpecker that he and William Garcia, previous BFREE Bird Project Leader, ever banded. Since the program ended in 2013, he estimates that they placed the band in 2011 – 10 years ago!

Pale-billed Woodpeckers (Campephilus guatemalensis)

are the largest woodpeckers in Belize and have a full red head. They commonly eat large larva of wood-boring beetles which they remove from the trunks and limbs of large decaying trees. Much to Jacob Marlin’s dismay, they are also very fond of burrowing into cacao pods. The one Gato spotted was in the forest opposite the cacao searching for food on a dead tree.

While woodpeckers are more long-lived than smaller birds, we are excited to know that this woodpecker has utilized the BFREE Privately Protected Area for so many years. We also thankful to Gato Pop for documenting this sighting!

Banded Pale-billed woodpecker spotted at BFREE by Gato Pop while conducting bird research in February 2021.

Kicking off the Field Season

The beginning of the year means the start of a brand new field season for BFREE. Kutztown University helped kick-off 2020 with an incredible group of 15 students and two instructors ready to embark on a two-week adventure in Belize. The group arrived on New Year’s Eve and spent the evening with Ernesto and Aurora Saqui in Maya Center Village where they participated in a traditional ceremony to welcome in the new year. From there the group spent eight nights at BFREE giving them enough time to really make the jungle feel like a home away from home. In addition to the week-long stay at BFREE, the group ventured to the coast for three nights in Placencia. We were excited to partner with our friends at the Crocodile Research Coalition (CRC) for a presentation led by Dr. Marisa Tellez, Executive Director, and Co-Founder. The group joined Dr. Tellez and a local boat captain for an evening on the water looking for crocs. This was a great opportunity for our group to learn more about research and educational outreach taking place in southern Belize.

SUNY Potsdam Student Group Photo

The next group to arrive was from SUNY Potsdam. Led by Dr. Glenn Johnson, the group spent an entire week at BFREE. They developed independent research projects which is one of the main activities for our field courses. The students generally spend their first day at BFREE thinking of a research question before starting to collect data. Below are a frew of the research projects that stuents have worked on so far this year.

  • Are insects attracted to different colors at different heights along the observation tower?
  • What is the dragonfly diversity at BFREE?
  • Are insects more attracted to cow dung or tuna?
  • Are leaf cutter ants more active in the day or night?

A highlight of SUNY Potsdam’s time at BFREE occurred on their first morning with a tapir sighting along the Bladen River. The group was just finishing breakfast when they got a call from Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, who spotted. Everyone was able to arrive in time to watch the Tapir as it slowly moved along the rivers’ edge. Students also had the opportunity to learn the traditions of basket-weaving using Jippy Joppa palm with Ofelia and cooking on the fire hearth with Edwardo.

Birdwatching with IJC

Last weekend we hosted our first student group from Belize in 2020. Led by Natural Resource Management teacher, Ms. Abigal Parham-Garbutt, Independence Junior College brought a group of 37 including instructors and students from Accounting, Agribusiness, Information Technology, and Natural Resources Management departments. Ms. Parham-Garbutt first visited BFREE in 2006 as a student herself when she was enrolled at the University of Belize. In 2011, she brought her first student group to BFREE and has continued to do so ever since. Students learned about the majestic Harpy Eagle, Central American River Turtle (Hickatee), Cacao based Agroforestry, small mammals, fruit phenology, migratory and native birds, insects, and snakes. Ms. Parham-Garbutt said, “Experiences like these are certainly one of the best ways to engage students in understanding how the forest works, how people can co-exist with nature and how blessed we are in Belize.”


Aiming for Conservation

Growing up in the south of Belize you develop a sense of uncertainty. I was raised in the Mayan subsistence farming community of San Pedro Columbia. This community has long-shared rudimentary hunting and fishing practices, that are now replaced by modern and destructive gears. A place where slash and burn is still practiced by most farmers, and the construction of logging roads has opened opportunities for overhunting and deforestation. Lamentably this rural community is adjacent to a forest reserve.

At present, my life revolves around conservation. I studied Natural Resource Management at the University of Belize, and I am currently a science fellow at BFREE. This organization has given me the opportunity to have a leading argronomist, Erick Ak, as a mentor. We are focused on restoring degraded rainforest with shade-loving criollo cacao. Our hopes of resembling the nautral rainforest strata with cacao and permaent shade trees is becoming a reality. My responsibilites include the collection of cacao growth data in the selected fields, and taking care of the nursery. We also collect GPS coordinates for the criollo cacao trees dispersed naturally in the rainforest. Our next plan is to start with the characterization of the four different varieties of criollo that exist on BFREE’s property, as little is known about the unique plant.

So as communities grow and continue to make unsustainable demands on natural systems, it is my hope
that our research ideas can be transplanted in farming communities. These ideas can be implemented
on farming areas that were abandoned. And since cacao has a very high demand, this can be an
alternative source of income for these farming families. This in turn would be beneficial for the posterity
of both man and nature.

Shadowing visiting university students has allowed me to meet students with the same enthusiasm towards conservation. These experiences have made me realize the different values other people have. I have plans to further my studies and help persuade people to be stewards of the environment. People
change, and I hope they change for the better.

Birds, Chocolate, Forests, and Allegheny College

Allegheny College students pose for a photo at BFREE during the Birds, Chocolate, Forest Field Course in May 2019. 

Written By, Beth Choate, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Environmental Science and Sustainability
Allegheny College

BFREE’s Birds, Chocolate and Forests course provided students with a real life example of the complexities of conservation within the rainforests of southern Belize. Through interactive demonstrations and presentations, field research and experiments, day-excursions, conversations with all members of the BFREE team, and exploring the surrounding environment, students developed an understanding of the relationships not only between birds, chocolate, and forests, but people as well. The complicated web of relationships that exists among efforts to conserve biodiversity and livelihoods is something we speak often about in our Environmental Science and Sustainability courses at Allegheny College. In our introductory course for the major, we make it clear to students that you will not find the solutions to environmental problems in a book. Each problem is unique and requires individuals who can critically examine the issue to devise a unique and thoughtful solution. The 2-week experience with our BFREE guides was a perfect compliment to this concept. In a country where people rely on the natural resources of the surrounding forests to provide them with medicines, food, and fertile land for agriculture, it quickly became clear that you couldn’t simply tell people to stop using the forest. BFREE  provides a unique solution: conserve the forest and grow a cash crop within the understory in an effort to conserve birds and other organisms, as well as livelihood. Jacob spoke with us about ongoing efforts to ensure that methods of cacao agro-forestry were fully understood so that local farmers could create successful farms and provide for their families demonstrating that BFREE is thinking about the sustainability of their program. The complexities of conservation also became apparent when learning about the Hicatee turtle, talking with Ernesto about traditional Mayan culture, and spending time on the coast in Placencia. This course was the perfect compliment to what we are saying in the classroom:
solving environmental problems is complicated.

Students from Allegheny College spend time in the BFREE cacao nursery. The group received hands-on experience in what it takes to make chocolate, from seed – to bean – to bar!

In order to solve those complicated problems, one must be curious, flexible, and have excellent communication and intercultural skills. Many of our students had minimal experience traveling outside of the US and very few had been submerged in a culture different to their own. When students are outside of their comfort zone, they are forced to adapt and push their own limits. It is through experiencing this unknown, whether it be using compost toilets, learning to fall asleep to the sound of howler monkeys, or discovering just how difficult harvesting cacao in the jungle can be, students were forced to overcome new challenges. After reading their final journal entries, many of our students surprised themselves. They learned that they are capable of much more than they ever thought possible. Through conversations with the BFREE staff and local Belizeans we met during the trip, worldviews were expanded and communication skills improved. For many students, this was the highlight of the trip, getting to know individuals with completely different life experiences than themselves. From an educational perspective, this is impossible to teach in a classroom or while simply touring around. BFREE provided an excellent experience for students to be completely submerged in the Belize culture, all while learning in a completely new environment.

A pile of roasted cocoa beans lay on the table. These beans have a thin, papery shell around them which needs to be removed. The students are cracking the beans open and the shell is removed in a process called winnowing. The lighter shells are blown away with fans, leaving behind pieces of pure cocoa bean, known as “nibs”.

The Bladen Review 2018

The fifth edition of BFREE’s annual magazine is now available in an interactive format online at Issuu! Get the latest news from the field station and learn about exciting research, conservation and education projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize. 

Highlights of the 2018 magazine include: a quick look back at the year, updates on the conservation and outreach programs associated with cacao agroforestry and the Hicatee turtle, and stories from new staff. Also, learn more about the unique eco-tour opportunities scheduled for 2019. 

Click here to download a PDF of The Bladen Review 2018.