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”.

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.

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.

Celebrating Belize’s National Treasure – the Hicatee Turtle

This October, BFREE, Turtle Survival Alliance, and our partners are observing the second annual Hicatee Awareness Month. Throughout the month, activities and events will celebrate the beloved Central American River Turtle – locally known as the Hicatee. This year’s message encourages national pride of this rare and unique species by seeking to establish the Hicatee as the national reptile of Belize.

As stated in the Belize 2016-2020 National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP), “Belize harbors a total of 118 globally threatened species (9 critically endangered, 32 endangered and 77 Vulnerable) and a further 62 near threatened / of least concern (IUCN, 2016). Of these, the critically endangered Central American river turtle (“hicatee”) is considered at highest risk of local extinction.”  

The Hicatee’s main predator is man. In effect, this turtle is being eaten to extinction across its limited range. Although it is believed that the Hicatee still exists in very small populations in northern Guatemala and southern Mexico, its stronghold is in Belize. Therefore, the future of the species depends on the actions of those who live in and visit Belize.

As the country’s national reptile, the Hicatee’s public status would be elevated and the stage would be set for national pride of this rare and unique species. Just as the Tapir and Toucan are revered and protected due to their status as the national animal and national bird, the Hicatee would be revered and protected if recognized as the national reptile.

To help prepare teachers for October, BFREE distributed educational packets to 100 preschools and primary schools in Cayo and Belize Districts. These are areas in which Hicatee have historically been found. Packets included classroom resources like activity pages and fact sheets about the Hicatee and other valuable and endangered wildlife found in Belize. “Herbert the Hickatee,” a book written by Ms. Gianni Martinez, a teacher at St. Mary’s School in Belize City, is featured in the packets. Also included is a national competition for students to design the 2019 Hicatee Awareness Month poster.

Camya Robinson, Research Assistant, and Jaren Serano, BFREE Science & Education Fellow and Author of “I am a Hicatee Hero,” posing with hatchlings 

On October 1st, BFREE emailed packets to principals of every school with a valid email address (540+) in Belize. These packet materials are available online for download at https://www.bfreebz.org. Special additions to the online packet include a poem for kids “I am a Hicatee Hero,” by Mr. Jaren Serano, alumnus of Sacred Heart Junior College in Cayo, and the 1 ½ minute video trailer for “Hope for Belize’s Hicatee: Central American River Turtle,” created by wildlife filmmakers, Richard and Carol Foster, of Belmopan.

With the second Hicatee Awareness Month, we are encouraging our Belizean and global partners to unite to help save this species from extinction. By making this our national reptile, future generations and leaders will recognize the important cultural and historic value of the Hicatee turtle – Belize’s National Treasure.

The hicatee is disappearing, but together we can save it.

Stakeholders Discuss the Future of the Cacao Industry in Belize

Participants gather in a circle for an open discussion during the Forum in San Pedro Columbia.

On  20th July 2017, the Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education (BFREE) along with Ya’axché Conservation Trust hosted the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum, entitled “The Future of the Cacao industry in Belize,” at the Church of the Nazarene Medical and Education Center in the historic village of San Pedro Columbia, Toledo District.

The Forum brought together nearly 50 participants representing the NGO community, cacao farmers, community leaders, and government representatives in what proved to be an extremely positive event.

Located near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Toledo, BFREE has been hosting and sponsoring workshops, symposiums, and forums to promote the conservation and maintenance of Belize’s rich biodiversity, its tropical forests, watersheds and abundant wildlife for the last 25 years. This forum took shape in response to our current research and work, which focuses on using cacao-based agroforestry as a way to expand the edges of rainforests and protect the wildlife who inhabit the area.

The Forum had two primary goals; bring together a group of stakeholders in order to share information, discuss challenges and explore opportunities for collaboration and compile information regarding the cacao industry in Belize for inclusion in a regional cacao website, CocoaNext, which will be launched later this year by the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago.

Forum goals were achieved as information was shared and opportunities for collaboration were considered. The group represented an exceptional diversity of experts with a wide breadth of knowledge and experience representing in Belize’s cacao industry making for focused and informative discussions throughout the day.

With the success of the Forum behind us, participants are already looking forward to the future. The shared desire resonated – that Belize and, particularly Toledo, will continue to become an important player in the local, regional and world Cacao Market and that this growing industry will benefit local farmers, local businesses, Belize’s economy, and most importantly future generations.

BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin welcomes the participants of the first Belize Cacao and Agroforestry Forum on Thursday, July 20, 2017.

The Forum speakers included:

  • •  Ms. Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre, at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago. Ms. Sankar provided fantastic overview and history of the Cocoa Research Centre as well as need and purpose for the regional cacao website that will be launched later this year.
  • •  Mr. Wilber Sabido, Chief Forest Officer of the Belize Forest Department. Mr. Sabido spoke of the Forest Department’s position on cacao and agroforestry.
  • •  Mr. Densford Mangar, Ministry of Agriculture Toledo Extension officer. Mr. Mangar presented a national perspective of cacao in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Pablo Mes, Program Coordinator for Maya Leaders Alliance. Mr. Mes described traditional Maya lands rights and land use in Belize.
  • •  Mr. Johnson Ical from Trio Village and Mr. Martin Chiquin from Indian Creek Village both provided the group with an overview of a small farmer’s viewpoint.
  • •  Mr. Gustavo Requena, Community Outreach and Livelihoods Director of Ya’axché Conservation Trust. Mr. Requena described how agroforestry bridges livelihoods as well as on protected area management and adaptation to climate change.
  • •  Mr. Jacob Marlin, Executive Director of BFREE. Mr. Marlin presented how cacao agroforestry may conserve and restore biodiversity.

Hyla and Jacob Marlin along with Antoinette Sankar of the Cocoa Research Centre pose for a photo before the Forum in BFREE’s cacao nursery.

BFREE would like to thank each of the speakers and the participants for their dedication to a healthy and sustainable future for cacao in Belize. Special thanks also to BFREE Deputy Director, Heather Barrett, BFREE Operations Manager and Cacao Demonstration Farm Manager, Elmer Tzalam and BFREE Board Member, Gentry Mander who helped make the event a success.

Funding for the Forum was provided by Belize Foundation for Research & Environmental Education, Ya’axché Conservation Trust, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, on behalf of the Nyanza Natural Resource Damage Trustee Council – comprised of the Service, Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration.

If you would like to know more about the Forum, would like to be involved or have any questions, please contact us at: contact@bfreebz.org