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.
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.