#CantiCam documents wildlife in the cacao agroforest

For over two years, Head Park Ranger, Sipriano Canti, has managed a BFREE research project to document wildlife movements throughout the reserve. At all times, he has eight to twelve Panthera wildlife cameras strategically located to capture patterns and activities of mammals and sometimes birds.

Canti has decades of experience with documenting wildlife using these types of cameras. He has worked with visiting researchers focused on different species and to answer different research questions. Therefore, he knows where to place cameras to best document activity.

With the development of the cacao agroforestry program at BFREE, he saw a unique opportunity to find out which animals are utilizing the cacao and when.

He began placing the cameras in several of the cacao blocks in areas where he anticipated a lot of movement. And the results have been successful. He routinely spots jaguars, tapirs, tayras, agoutis, coatis, deer as well as ground birds like common paraques and great currasow. The cameras also capture the movements of humans who utilize the property, which becomes important documentation for the protection program.


These cameras provide proof that the cacao agroforestry system provides healthy habitat for a diversity of species. As the farm grows and changes, we are excited to see how the density and diversity of wildlife is also changed.

The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements

by the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP)

The Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund (HCP) has partnered with Dr. Lambert A. Motilal to create a comprehensive evaluation of all cacao-growing countries around the world. The Review Of Cacao Explorations and Germplasm Movements is a 300-page review is comprised with riveting information regarding the history, genetics, flavor profiles, and cultivation areas of each country.

The purpose of the review is to enrich readers with the understanding of cacao origins, migrations and explorations of cacao varieties have taken place over time, and where future collections should be focused.

Cacao is an important tree crop impacting on livelihoods of millions of farming families in tropical and sub-tropical countries worldwide. This review serves to help conserve cocoa genetic diversity by identifying places for in situ collection and germplasm collection for ex situ genebanks.

To celebrate the launch of The Review, Jacob Marlin, BFREE Executive Director and HCP President, participated in a webinar with Dr. Motilal and Anne Zaczek, HCP Executive Director. The event was hosted by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association (FCIA) as part of their on-going webinar series.

You can now download your copy of #TheReview on at the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund website! We encourage cacao enthusiasts to donate to the research efforts that made this publication possible, and to support future research possibilities, Heirloom cacao, and HCP farmers.

Pollination and Paternity Testing

By Holly Brabazon

Dr. DeWayne Shoemaker and Holly Brabazon of University of Tennessee, Knoxville


Would you believe that small biting midges are cacao’s main pollinator? They’re only about the size of a pin head, and they don’t fly very well either, but with how small cacao flowers are, and how they’re shaped, cacao has to rely on the tiny midge to pollinate its flowers. Unfortunately, midges worldwide do a poor job pollinating all the flowers made by cacao trees. Only a small percentage of flowers get pollinated, and even then, only a few of those pollinated flowers receive enough pollen (about 115 pollen grains) to make a fully formed, viable pod.

A first step to better understand pollination in cacao is to study pollination of wild-growing cacao. To date, only a few studies exist on wild cacao pollination, and many questions about pollination remain unanswered. For instance, we still do not know how many times a flower needs to be visited to be fully pollinated, how often flowers are pollinated with pollen from the same tree, or how pollen is moved around the forest. Not to mention, we only have a rough guess of how far a pollinator can even travel. These are some of the questions I will investigate as part of my PhD research.

To start answering these questions, we will gather genetic information from all the wild cacao trees growing in the forest at BFREE by sequencing the DNA of these trees. There are about 300 wild trees at BFREE, and thanks to Elmer Tzalam, Mark Canti, and the cacao team’s hard work, each and every tree has been visited, georeferenced using GPS, and labeled with a metal tag. We were able to use these GPS coordinates to find and collect leaves from many of the trees at BFREE in June 2022. Now, Lenardo Ash, a BFREE Cacao Science Fellow graduate and student at the University of Belize, has taken on the responsibility of collecting leaves from the remaining trees. Once the leaves are collected, we will extract and sequence their DNA. These genetic data will allow us to identify unique DNA tags for each tree, like a fingerprint, from the unique patterns in their DNA.

With these DNA “fingerprints,” we can learn a lot about the natural history of the cacao growing in the forest at BFREE. We will see how genetically diverse the population is and determine if there are unique clusters of trees with similar genetic variation. Many other cacao populations in the world have genetic mechanisms to prevent self-pollination, and we will see if those same genes are found in the BFREE trees.

We also will use these genetic data to figure out exactly which trees are pollinating other trees’ flowers, just like a paternity test. To perform our paternity experiment, we collected pods from several wild cacao trees growing out in the rainforest at BFREE. We brought those pods back to the nursery and planted the individual beans in bags of soil, making sure to carefully label each soil bag to indicate which tree the pod came from. The beans are growing in the nursery right now. Once the seedlings have leaves big enough to collect, we’ll sequence their DNA. Then we’ll do a paternity test on each seedling to identify who the father tree is that contributed the pollen. Once we know who the father tree is, we’ll map how far pollen traveled to pollinate the flower on the mother tree. This information will allow us to search for patterns of pollen moving around the forest. With pollination being a limiting factor in cacao production, our studies may ultimately help cacao farmers increase production with better pollination management. We just need to better understand how cacao pollinators move around the forest and what they are capable of in a natural rainforest environment.

We had an amazing time working with all the great people at BFREE. It was an adventure to explore a pristine rainforest searching for cacao trees, and I can’t wait to see what we learn from our results!

Cacao Fellow, Mark Canti, Explains the Process of Adopting a Tree from the BFREE Farm:

By Mark Canti

Hello, my name is Mark Canti. I’m the BFREE Cacao Fellow, and I oversee the cacao adoption program at BFREE in collaboration with the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund. I’m always very excited when I learn that a new tree has been adopted from our farm, and I am eager to tag the newly adopted tree. 

I first create a personalized tag for the tree by engraving the adopter’s name or the adopter’s chosen honoree on an aluminum tag. Then I grab my gear, including the newly created tag, a GPS device, and my camera. Next, I need to select the perfect tree. I’m looking for healthy trees that have at least 70% shade and are at least 1-1.5 meters tall. Once the tree has been selected, carefully tie the tag to a tree branch and record the GPS coordinates. Finally, comes my favorite part of the process. I’m very passionate about photography, and I really enjoy the opportunity to photograph each tree. My dream is to capture wildlife such as a beautiful bird like a warbler when I’m taking each photo. I like that the pictures I take can help the new adopters feel as close to being on our beautiful farm as possible. 

I’m very proud to be part of the Adopt a Tree program, and I would like to thank everyone who has adopted a tree from our farm so far. I hope I have the opportunity to select and photograph a tree for you! 

If you would like to adopt a tree from the BFREE Farm, please visit the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund’s website and select HCP#11.

Adopt a Cacao Tree – HEIRLOOM CACAO PRESERVATION FUND (hcpcacao.org)

Celebrating Earth Day

Students from Keene High School in Keene, New Hampshire helped BFREE staff celebrate Earth Day by planting seeds. This is Keene High School teacher, Matt Brady’s, fourth trip to Belize and to BFREE. He is joined by fellow teachers, Christine Gillis, Monica Foley, and Jodie Ballaro. Their group was scheduled to come to the field station in 2020 but was cancelled due to the pandemic. They tried again last year with no luck. This makes us especially thrilled to host them in 2022.

In a BFREE interview with Mark Canti and Jonathan Dubon on Facebook Live for Earth Day, Matt described why he wanted to return. “BFREE is a really special place for lots of reasons. I’m really happy to be here to meet young people like you. People who contribute to the ecology of the area and are conservationists. That is very important to me, the way BFREE is set up to keep young people coming in from the area. This is why we keep coming back.”

In a surprising turn of events for dry season, it began raining at 9am during the student orientation. The rain continued throughout the morning and into the afternoon, but this didn’t dampen anyone’s spirits. The students continued their orientation and tour of the facilities. After lunch, everyone divided into groups for service projects. Nine students helped with planting germinated cacao seeds in the nursery. An additional fourteen students helped at the Hicatee Conservation and Research Center where they assisted in a project to improve the exterior fence. The remainder of the students supported the long-term large mammal research project by checking camera traps on the property.

We are grateful that Matt, Christine, Monica and Jodie worked so hard to come back to BFREE this year.

Creating Strong Rootstock for Heirloom Cacao

Grafting is the preferred method of vegetative propagation for cacao (Theobroma cacao). Grafting allows farmers to choose the qualities they want in their trees and reduce expenses related to sourcing cacao trees. But before a tree can be grafted, you must grow the rootstock.

This year our seeds are coming from Ana Maria farm in Guatemala to create our rootstock. This variety has been bred over many years to produce a strong and robust seedling that is fast-growing, can withstand drought conditions, and provides excellent rootstock for BFREE’s heirloom criollo cacao.

In Guatemala, pods are cracked open and the best cacao seeds are carefully selected. After that, they are disinfected for any possible fungal disease. Finally, they are germinated and are ready for transport. Ten thousand seeds will travel to Belize and reach BFREE today in order to be planted tomorrow on Earth Day.

Special thanks to Erick Ac for providing the cacao seeds and the wonderful photos!

New Cacao Operations Manager

Congratulations to Mr. Elmer Tzalam. He has recently taken on the new role of Cacao Operations Manager for Crioco Cacao, LLC. This is well-deserved promotion for Elmer. He has been a faithful employee to BFREE for over ten years.

Elmer Tzalam is Crioco Cacao LLC’s Cacao Operations Manager

Elmer began working with BFREE in June 2011 as the project’s first cacao farm worker. Prior to BFREE, Elmer received cacao training internationally with the organization CATIE. He used the knowledge gained in training to support the growth of the cacao trees at BFREE. For years, he nurtured the cacao and coffee trees in that original farm plot – now designated Block 1. When it was necessary to begin collecting data on the wild Criollo trees found throughout the property, Elmer took responsibility. He would hike deep into the forest, sometimes alone, sometimes with other BFREE staff or volunteers.

He is multi-talented and has many years of work experience prior to joining the BFREE team in 2011. Because of his well-rounded work history, Elmer has filled many roles at the field station. From supporting student groups, to maintaining the facilities, to delivering supplies, to training new cacao staff – he has done a little bit of everything and he understands how this field station works.

“Elmer has been instrumental in the development of BFREE’ cacao program since its inception,” stated Jacob Marlin, Crioco Cacao, CEO. “His extensive experience in the many cacao operations such as the nursery, the wild trees, the farm and with post-harvest processing make him invaluable to our agroforestry program.”

The cacao nursery at BFREE

Each year the cacao nursery at BFREE is restored and prepared for the new planting season. Any old plants or trees are removed and fresh liner is laid, the area is weeded and trimmed, and damaged poles are replaced. Additionally, the nursery was expanded to hold more bags and the irrigation system was modified for more efficient watering.

Soon after those preparations were made, came the task of filling thousands of nursery bags. Lucky for us, ARCC participants showed up just in time to help fill bags with a sand and soil mixture. Because of them, a huge job became much more manageable.

BFREE Cacao Fellows are assigned to the management of the cacao nursery, so Mark Canti has replaced Lenardo Ash as caregiver to the young cacao and shade trees. Once bags are filled and put in place, Mark waters and fertilizers the soil to prepare for seed planting. In the coming months, he will be responsible for ensuring the successful growth of the nursery trees.

Shade trees are just as important to this project as cacao trees, so both short-term and long-term shade tree seedlings are included. Therefore, five varieties of short-term shade trees were planted: Pigeon Pea, Plantain, Bananas, Erythrina and Madre de cacao. Long-term shade trees include Bribri, Jobillo, two species of Barbajalote, and Mahogany. We continue to search the property for other types of seedpods and saplings.

Testing sugar content in cacao

Cacao staff at BFREE are learning to harvest cacao pods when they are the sweetest. Last month, Elmer Tzalam and Mark Canti harvested cacao pods to test sugar content at different stages of ripeness. They carefully opened each pod one at a time. Then they scraped out several beans and place them in a mesh bag. They squeezed a few drops of juice from the bag onto a tool called a refractometer. Finally, they held the refractometer to their eye and looked into the direction of a bright light source. As a result, they received a reading of “degrees brix” which is the sugar content of an aqueous solution. 

One degree Brix is 1 gram of sucrose in 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution as percentage by mass. Brix Refractometers are built to measure the sucrose content of a sample through refraction. These meters are capable of incredibly quick and accurate results and are used often in the food and beverage industries. 

The wild, heirloom criollo cacao at BFREE has never been grown in a farm setting. Therefore, the data we collect is new information to the cacao industry and is part of our efforts to characterize this ancient heirloom fine flavor variety. By using tools like the refractometer, we will begin to better understand the most desirable moment to harvest a pod.

Additional info about how Brix refractometers work

Traditional refractometers are handheld analogue instruments. They are held up to the light, so that it shines through the sample. The light is then directed through a prism and lenses onto a measurement scale. A shadow will be case on the measurement scale at the angle where total internal reflection occurs. Observing this shadow through the eyepiece gives the brix reading.

A special thanks to Skyler and Austin from the visiting ARRC group for their enthusiastic participation in this process.