Summer Intern Spotlight: Parr McQueen

Parr McQueen, an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond traveled to Belize with BFREE earlier this year along with thirteen other classmates. The Field Course led by Dr. Amy Treonis and Dr. Kristine Grayson was focused on using experiential field methods to learn how scientists study the natural world.

Inspired by his trip and what he learned during his semester-long course, Parr returned to BFREE this summer. For just over a month, Parr spent his time working in the field, collecting data to support his research examining cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. When he wasn’t busy taking soil samples, Parr explored the many trails around BFREE snapping incredible photos of the wildlife he discovered.

We are so fortunate to have hosted Parr for the second time this year. We can’t wait to see all of the great things he will accomplish!

My Summer Internship at BFREE

By: Parr McQueen 

Earlier this summer I had the fantastic opportunity to stay at the BFREE field station for five weeks as part of the summer internship program. As a current undergraduate student at the University of Richmond, this was a great educational opportunity for me. Doing anything from assisting with the care of the Hickatee turtles to working with school groups, I was able to experience the rainforest more than any week-long field course could offer. This was an incredible experience with too many good memories to write about and has certainly made me grow, providing a stepping stone for future career prospects. In addition to the internship program, I made use of my time in Belize to conduct my own research.

My research examines cacao based agroforestry and its impact on the rainforest. In much of the developing world, forests are being cut down at increasing rates for traditional agriculture. Slash and burn farming is prevalent and it is occurring right up to protected area boundaries, reducing habitat for endangered species and contributing to climate change. Deforestation in the tropics has been estimated to make up 29% of the total emissions from fossil fuels and other sources that cause global warming.

BFREE has an ongoing project to help promote cacao agroforestry, which is a much more sustainable farming method that still provides income for local farmers. This is a way of planting cacao, the raw product to make chocolate, within the established rainforest instead of in a traditional field. Rather than cutting the forest to the ground, smaller plants are thinned out and large trees are left in place. In many studies, this has been shown to preserve biodiversity by providing habitat for avian and mammalian species, but no work at all has been done examining how the microorganisms are affected. With the help of Dr. Amy Treonis, Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Richmond, I am attempting to answer this important question.

While in Belize, I sampled soil from replicate cacao agroforestry farms and the adjacent undisturbed rainforest. Currently, in Richmond, I am in the middle of processing the soils to extract microscopic nematode worms. Nematodes are a commonly studied microorganism and are a good indicator species of soil health. I will be looking at the makeup of the nematode communities present in the soils to get an idea of the health of the soil in the agroforestry systems compared to the health in the undisturbed rainforest. This research is important because we need to know if the cacao agroforestry is impacting the health and biodiversity within the soil. While we can see the colorful birds and cute mammals prospering, we have no idea if the microorganisms in the soil are thriving or not. Healthy soil microorganisms carry out critical nutrient cycling and decomposition processes that are essential to having a fully functioning ecosystem.

Overall I had a wonderful time at the BFREE field station and was able to learn a lot, by fully immersing myself in the day-to-day operations, while at the same time strengthening my own personal research program.


2017 BFREE Field Courses

BFREE 2017 Field Course Season wraps up this month with 172 students and instructors visiting the Field Station from as far as Scotland and Alaska. Eleven courses in total, including two junior colleges and one primary school from Belize, all traveled to our small slice of paradise off the Southern Highway.

BFREE field courses are each uniquely developed by the lead instructors and BFREE staff. Courses are created to reflect each school’s curriculum and goals. While each group is different, visitors to BFREE share many similar challenging and rewarding experiences.

Upon arrival to Belize, each group is welcomed at the airport by a BFREE Tour Guide. If you have the pleasure to be greeted by Nelly Cadle then you know you are in for a treat! Nelly’s experience, knowledge, and passion for her country and work are hard to match.

The hike from the Southern Highway to the BFREE Field Station is a memory hard to forget. Traversing several distinct habitats, each with unique plants and animals, leads you to the Bladen River, towering cecropia trees, and your final destination — The BFREE Field Station.

While at BFREE, groups not only learn about the various ongoing program work but have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with first-hand experience supporting BFREE’s conservation initiatives. Students have the opportunity to visit the Hicatee Conservation & Research Center (HCRC), a breeding and research facility for the critically endangered hicatee turtle as well as the 15-acre cacao and coffee agroforest, home to over 12,000 cacao trees.

Assigned by their instructors, many students are tasked with developing research questions and collecting preliminary data while spending several days working on independent projects.

Students may choose to participate in various field experiments such as conducting river studies in the Bladen River, setting up small mammal traps for the Small Mammal Community Study or surveying selected plots in the Fruit Phenology Study.

In addition to the BFREE Field Station, many groups incorporate a marine component, learning about the second largest barrier reef system in the world, snorkeling from various islands around Belize.

There is nothing quite like traveling to a remote field station deep in a tropical rainforest to create memories and friendships that will last a lifetime.

On behalf of all of us at BFREE, we would like to extend a sincere thank you to all of the instructors, administrators, students, and parents that helped make the 2017 BFREE Field Season one of the best yet! We can’t wait to see you all again!

If you are interested in visiting BFREE, whether it be a student group, family vacation, solo adventure or interest in volunteering, we would be thrilled to have you! Contact BFREE Program Coordinator, Tyler Sanville at for more information.


2017 BFREE Field Courses 


For even more Field Course information check out these links below: 

University of Richmond Story Map

Click the link above to visit the University of Richmond’s Story Map put together by the fourteen students that visited BFREE this year.

Vermont Commons School Video: Belize is Our Classroom!

Vermont Commons School creates a compelling video documenting their trip to BFREE, check it out on YouTube: Belize is Our Classroom! 

Volunteer with BFREE

BFREE is now looking for volunteers to work with HCRC Manager, Tom Pop and the nearly 70 newly hatched hicatee turtles. Visit the link below for more info!

BFREE flickr Page

Find even more photos from the 2017 BFREE Field Course season on flickr!

Slideshow on Student Alumni Facebook Group

Watch all the group photos from 2017 in this slideshow on the BFREE Student Alumni Group Page. If you are a student alum, be sure to follow along!








The Bladen Review 2017

The fourth 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 and educational projects taking place in and around the rainforests of Belize.



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

Belize is Our Classroom

Vermont Commons School Educators, Jennifer Cohen and Mark Cline Lucey on the beach of Placencia at the end of their student trip to Belize in January.

Vermont Commons School Educator, Social Studies Department Chair and Research & Service Program Director, Mark Cline Lucey is no stranger to Belize or the BFREE Field Station. Having first met BFREE Executive Director, Jacob Marlin, during his junior year of college while studying abroad in Belize. Mark returned several years later to live and work from the BFREE Field Station. In 2004, Mark joined the team at Vermont Commons School and soon after, he and Vermont Commons School English Instructor, Jennifer Cohen, began bringing student groups to Belize. Mark and Jennifer are passionate advocates for both Belize and BFREE having traveled with more than five student groups over the last ten years.

Mark and Jennifer both have an intimate knowledge of the players, wildlife, cultures and the developmental and political issues facing Belize. This depth of knowledge and understanding shines through their incredibly informational and inspiring field courses year after year.

We are so fortunate to work with many educators like Mark and Jennifer who are deeply invested in their students as well as the BFREE mission. Together we strive to inspire students to be global citizens, who care about their environment and recognize their role to take positive action.

Check out Mark and Jennifer’s group of incredibly smart and talented students and receive a glimpse of a BFREE field course through their eyes by watching this student made short-film documenting their trip to Belize in January, 2017:




Making Chocolate at BFREE

cacao in the rainforest

Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam, introduces students to how cacao grows in the rainforest. Photo by Graham Byers.

The 2017 field season is well underway! In late January, Vermont Commons High School returned to BFREE to participate in a field course. The group explored the rainforest, participated in homestays with Maya families in Golden Stream Village and traversed the coastal town of Placencia.

A highlight of the trip was making chocolate from scratch at the BFREE Field Station. The journey began with a tour of the cacao demonstration farm led by Operations Manager, Elmer Tzalam. There students harvested ripe pods and, after cracking them open, were able to taste the sweet pulp that surrounds a cacao bean before biting into the dark chocolate bean.

removing a cacao pod from the tree

Student carefully removes a pod from a cacao tree. Photo by Graham Byers.

The group followed beans from the tree, through the fermentation process, to sun-drying, then peeling, pan roasting, and grinding until it was time to pour the liquid chocolate into molds and – finally – eat!

fermentation of cacao

Students remove beans from fermenting boxes. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

hand-making chocolate

BFREE Field Course Leader, Nelly Cadle, helps a student fill the chocolate molds. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.

roasting cacao beans

Students roast the cacao beans in cast iron skillets. Photo by Mark Cline Lucey.


Can Chocolate Save the Rainforest?

cacao podCan chocolate save the rainforest? BFREE has been exploring this question for many years, beginning when our certified organic shade-grown cacao demonstration farm was planted in 2006. Since then we have worked diligently to provide educational opportunities and support for those interested in learning more about the benefits of shade-grown cacao. We have offered workshops and training programs for local farmers which have provided Belizeans with the tools necessary to grow sustainable and successful crops. BFREE along with students of UNC Wilmington have co-produced ‘The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook.‘  This handbook is a resource manual for anyone interested in growing cacao in Belize.

Due to its high value and its success as an understory crop, cacao is proven to be a great alternative to other forms of agriculture in the tropics which generally require clearing of tropical rainforests and heavy input of agrochemicals.  Therefore, we have been promoting shade-grown cacao as a method for restoring the forest canopy and to help improve the lives of local farmers by offering higher income and healthier working environments, while also maintaining and expanding rainforests, and providing habitat for birds and other wildlife. Growing chocolate is a win-win; it’s good for the environment and can improve farmers’ livelihoods.

cacao agroforest

Pedro Rash and Elmer Tzalam manage BFREE’s cacao agroforest.


Cacao Pod photo credit: Graham Byers

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

500 copies of the handbook are now available in Belize

500 copies were produced in the first handbook printing.

The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook is now complete and available in Belize. A joint effort between BFREE and UNC Wilmington’s Department of Environmental Studies with significant input from experts at the Cocoa Research Centre at the University of the West Indies, the handbook describes the benefits of sustainable agriculture for humans, wildlife and forests.

The 70-page manual is filled with illustrations and simple descriptions intended to guide farmers through the basics of land preparation, nursery management, planting, maintenance, harvest and post-harvest. The ‘Resource,’ section of the Handbook includes checklists, management schedules, and cultivation records, to help farmers track their farm activity and keep on schedule throughout the year. The hope is that this new handbook will provide a comprehensive resource for cacao farmers whether just starting out or experienced, and help promote organic cacao-based agroforestry practices as an alternative to traditional agriculture that often required clearing of rainforest and intensive agro-chemical inputs.

Five hundred handbooks were produced during the initial printing and will be made available to farmers in the Toledo District through farmer cooperatives, during meetings and workshops, in farm supply stores in Punta Gorda, at this year’s Chocolate Festival of Belize, and at the BFREE field station. In late January, the first books were distributed to BFREE staff who will share them with their village leaders and community members.

Partial funding for the Belize Cacao-based Agroforestry and Restoration Project (BCARP) is provided by 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.

BFREE staff with Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook

BFREE Staff members pose with their copies of The Belize Cacao Agroforestry Handbook in January 2017 at the BFREE Field Station.      Standing from Left to Right – Carmelita Shol|San Felipe Village; Patron Coc|San Marcos Village; Apolonio Pop| Santa Cruz; Jacob Marlin| BFREE; Pedro Rash| Indian Creek.    Seated from Left to Right – Thomas Pop|Golden Stream Village, Thomas Chub|Indian Creek; Elmer Tzalam|Golden Stream Village; and Cesario Pop|Silver Creek.


Home Stay: A Day in the Life


An exciting part of many study abroad programs is a homestay. A homestay allows you to see how Belizeans truly live and immerses you into the culture. While staying at the BFREE station and campsites will show you a lot of Belize, the homestay will allow you to gain a better perspective of the culture while connecting with local families on a personal level.

A typical home in southern Belize, is very simple and minimally furnished. While it may appear very different than what you are used to, you will soon discover that everything you need is there.  There is generally one large room that is the main living area outfitted with hammocks, a table and a few chairs. The kitchen may be part of this main room or it could be a separate thatched structure.  Toilets and bathing areas are private areas outside of the main house. Families often have farm animals such as chickens and pigs.

1909606_507664749016_1073_n_30230706674_oThe family you will be staying with is pre-approved by the BFREE staff and each family is so excited to share their home with you. Families usually have small children who will be eager to meet you and some of the family members will speak English. Meals are eaten with your host family and you should ask to help cook – it is truly an incredible experience and a great way to get to know your family better! A typical meal consists of tortillas, chicken, beans, rice and vegetables.  If you have any dietary restrictions, such as allergies or intolerances, let BFREE know and we will notify your family in advance.

1909606_507664180156_9424_n_30746415022_oBelizeans tend to be fairly shy, especially the women, so don’t be offended if they seem hesitant to get to know you. Come prepared to tell a few stories about what your life is like and to ask a few questions about their life. You can even show pictures of your house and your family. If you would like to take a photo of your host family or a photo with the family, please make sure you ask permission first. Photos are still not very common in their culture so their approval is important. If you look at photos of students with their homestay families you may notice not many people are smiling. Their facial expression doesn’t mean they’re upset, rather they simply approach photos differently than we do.


While not required, you are encouraged to bring a small gift for your homestay family to thank them for opening their homes and lives to you. Some typical gifts that the families love are kitchen items such as hand towels, spatulas and spoons, and gifts for the children such as books, soccer balls or board games. In Belize it is hard to come across these items, and when they do the items are incredibly expensive. Gifts are not only useful to the family, they serve as reminder of your visit and your new friendship.

The homestay family will teach you what it is like to live in Belize and introduce you to a different way of life. The students won’t be the only ones learning though, each homestay family is excited to get to know you and learn about your life in the states. The families are ready for you, get excited for them.


Primary School Book Drive

Today, I’m writing to you as a reader and a lover of books.  Some of my fondest early memories involve Saturday morning visits to our neighborhood library in North Carolina. My dad and I would browse our favorite sections and leave with stacks of books.  When we reached home, he would recline in his chair and I would curl up in a beanbag nearby and we would lose ourselves in other worlds for the rest of the weekend. Reading never felt like a luxury; it felt like my right as a human being. Whenever I had questions about anything my dad would point toward the shelf of Encyclopedias and command me to, “Look it up!” This became and remains my mantra – though the tools I use to access information are very different now. And in spite of the fact that I read less books and tend toward short articles, I always have access to the information that I desire through libraries, bookstores, and online.

Schoolkids at Bladen Village School look through "Biodiversity of the Bladen," books that were donated by BFREE and the Doursons in 2013.

Schoolkids at Bladen Village School look through “Biodiversity of the Bladen,” books that were donated by BFREE and the Doursons in 2013.

In Belize, things are different. Especially in the south where life if much slower and access to material goods is limited. Schools in the southernmost Toledo District are under-resourced and families struggle to pay required school fees and provide basic school supplies and uniforms for their children. In Belize, books are a luxury – even in schools. Classrooms are equipped with a chalkboard, some desks and tables and chairs, usually mismatched and often broken. Teachers take on the responsibility of providing room decorations, learning aids, classroom materials of all sorts and even books. They do this through fundraisers in their school’s community in which they write letters to organizations in the area and sell items like snacks. They also use their own wages to ensure that their students have a chance to learn.

Over the years, BFREE has worked with communities that buffer our reserve and the Bladen Nature Reserve. We visit classrooms and bring students to the field station on day trips. We have also donated supplies and materials. In 2013, BFREE and the Marlin kids helped Golden Stream Government School establish their library with a large donation of books and with materials for building bookshelves. This school library has since expanded and the school plans to open the library to the community on the weekends allowing more access to the precious resources.

In late 2015, I was approached by an eager US high school student who was interested in a service project that would benefit Belize. Through a series of books drives and with the help of Terry Biehl and Laura Calton, that student, Brianna Biehl, collected well over 600 books as well as some resource materials and classroom supplies.

We invite you to participate in our last push for books and supplies prior to making the shipment at the end of the month. Please read below for the list of current items requested.

Thank you for considering our request and for your continued support!

Heather Barrett


If you are interested in donating new or gently used books or resource materials, please mail or deliver them to:

2602 NW 6th Street, Suite D
Gainesville, FL 32609

Below is our Wish List:

Books for pre-K through 8th grade on the following subjects:

•Health and Wellness

Teacher Materials:

•Resource and Activity Guides
•Unlined paper/ copier paper
•Classroom Posters
•Construction Paper

For more ideas, visit our Amazon Wish List here.

Also, here is a great resource for books about Belize. Cubola Publications

10 Tips for a Successful Trip!

thumbnail_10-tips-bannerPreparing to study abroad can be a hectic time, you’re about to jump into a new environment with a different culture and it may be your first time out of the country.  Don’t sweat it, BFREE is here to help. With our ten tips for a successful trip you are bound to have an amazing and unforgettable time in Belize.

1. Write it out

  • Write letters to family and friends, or journal about the trip. Jotting down your thoughts is the best way to remember your adventure for years to come!

2. Stay hydrated

  • This is not only important for your health, but for your mentality. You want to stay alert and ready for everything coming up, you won’t want to miss a second!

3. Get to know your group

  • This not only includes the other students on the trip, but also your group leaders, BFREE staff, and the people of Belize. Make some new connections, you never know what new friendships you might make!

4. Stay in tune with your body

  • Feeling tired? Take a break. Feeling sick? Let someone know. Listen to what your body tells you, it’s pretty important!

5. Be adventurous

  • You’re in a new country, try something new. Face your fear of heights, taste food you’ve never seen before, and don’t be afraid to get dirty!

6. Spend some time alone

  • Everyone says you truly find yourself when you study abroad, so take some time and you might just find something amazing.

7. Ask for help

  • You have an endless support system while you’re in Belize. If you have questions or need a little bit of guidance reach out! There are people there for you.

8. Respect and embrace change

  • Life in Belize is very different than here in the United States. Be prepared for these changes and embrace them!

9. Listen carefully and have fun

  • The staff and guides have so much information they want to share with you to ensure you are safe and you have a great trip. So stay tuned in and have fun!!

10. Get excited

  • Traveling abroad is an incredible opportunity, dare we say life changing. This unforgettable experience is unlike any other, so get excited! We can’t wait to meet you!